Omar Henriquez stood before about 40 people at a luncheon in Hempstead recently and raised the thorny issue of the moment: Many people in the minority community view the upcoming census with suspicion - even fear.
Some may be anxious because they live in illegal housing. Others, because they are undocumented immigrants. Some simply distrust government.
"The fears are unfounded," Henriquez, a U.S. Census Bureau "partnership specialist" told those at the luncheon hosted by the nonprofit Family and Children's Association.
His appearance was illustrative of an expansive census outreach effort that has members of nonprofit groups hosting dinners, working through churches and knocking on doors.
The outreach zeros in on what are known as "hard to count" areas, those mainly populated by minorities and immigrants. The initiative is paid for in large measure by philanthropic groups who last year formed the Long Island 2010 Census Collaborative.
Henriquez stressed that information collected by the census on individuals is, by law, kept confidential for 72 years and not shared with any other government agency. Before that time, only statistics are released.
"If anybody asks you, you can say with authority there is no fear in filling out the census because there are no repercussions," Henriquez assured his listeners.
This focus comes as 2010 census questionnaires are to arrive in household mailboxes this week, beginning the bureau's once-a-decade count of the nation's population.
The stakes are high. In 2008, census data drove nearly $3 billion of government money to Long Island, according to a Brookings Institution report last week.
But some say the Island could have gotten even more money if everyone had been counted. Based in part on the 2000 undercount in minority communities such as Hempstead, the county executives challenged census population estimates in 2007. The challenge resulted in a population increase of 105,000 people for the region, bringing the estimated population to 2.86 million.
"The census count is the backbone of how the government determines where that money goes. And so without that accuracy, we get shorted," said Darren Sandow, executive director of the Hagedorn Foundation, which organized the collaborative. The collaborative has distributed $335,000 to 15 local nonprofit groups for census outreach. In addition, Hagedorn has funded five groups, with a combination of foundation grants and state funds.
Because the Census has historically undercounted minorities, immigrants and the poor, getting the count right can even be seen as a matter of civil rights, said David Okorn, executive director of the Long Island Community Foundation, a collaborative member. "This is a way for us to help bring some equality by having them counted."
The Uniondale Community Council has held community forums, hired a project coordinator and part-time outreach worker and created a "Complete Count Committee" of clergy, school, civic leaders and others.
"We would reach out to people that we know in the community who could then reach people who might be reluctant to be counted for whatever reason," said Susan Kern, the council's vice president.
Lori Brennan, the Family Service League's division director for vocational services, said her agency will hang census information packets on door handles. On the itinerary: Brentwood, Central Islip, Huntington, Huntington Station, Riverhead, Wyandanch and Bay Shore.
Americans of Pakistani Heritage Inc. (not part of the collaborative's effort) hosted a free dinner in January at a West Hempstead restaurant, attracting about 150 people. One of several census specialists at the event included a Pakistani-American who spoke to the audience in Urdu.
The Long Island Progressive Coalition plans to visit all 4,000 homes in Wyandanch. Said director Lisa Tyson: "Our goal is to hit every household, whether it's on the phone or at the door," and "really talk it [the census] up, really trying to build that community trust."
Get ready for the Census
Q. What is the history of the Census?
A. The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years. The first census was undertaken in 1790, recording 3.9 million people in the country. Back then, it counted whites, including indentured servants, and Indians who paid taxes. Slaves were counted as "three-fifths" of a person.
Q. What am I about to get in the mail?
A. A 10-question questionnaire that the Census Bureau says will take about 10 minutes to complete. Among the questions: Number of people in the household; their relationship to each other; is the house owned or rented or owned "free and clear;" and your phone number, in case officials don't understand an answer.
Q. Wait, I thought there was a long form?
A. The long form was discontinued after the 2000 Census. Instead the bureau conducts the American Community Survey, where census officials interview some 3 million people annually to get demographic information.
Q. What do I do with the form?
A. Fill it out and mail it back as soon as possible. The Census bureau wants them back by April 1, but late responses are OK, too.
Q. What happens if I don't fill out the questionnaire and send it in?
A. Expect a visit from a census enumerator.
Q. So, will they interview me or just get my completed form?
A. If you have filled out your form, they'll take it. If you haven't, they will interview you.
Q. When will they come to my house?
A. Starting in May.
Q. I live in a household that I'm not certain is entirely legal. Will the Census Bureau report me?
A. No. Information the bureau collects on individuals is confidential for 72 years, and is not shared with any government agency.
Q. What difference does this whole thing make anyway?
A. The census population count and other census-related statistics are the basis for the distribution of more than $400 billion in federal aid annually to states, localities and tribal governments. That aid is for hundreds of programs, ranging from health, transportation, education, housing. If an area is undercounted, it won't get all the federal aid it might have to address pressing community needs.
Q. Do I have to respond to the census?
A. Yes. It's required by law (Title 13 of the U.S. Code).