Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Census naïveté

I have to admit my considerable naïveté when it comes to the U.S. Census. I filled out my first Census within a year from moving to the United States, and was puzzled by several of its questions. We filled out my husband's ethnicity as Spanish-Mayan-Aztec Hispanic Non-White, and mine as Caucasian-Jewish (making plenty of use of the write-in space for "Other").  Even the word Caucasian caused me some serious head-scratching, as without Wikipedia back then, I could not easily understand how the term became associated with the (relatively) light-skinned people populating Europe (because, honestly, our connection to the people of Georgia and other truly Caucasian nations is at best attenuated).  It turns out, the term is now largely disfavored, and justly so... now we use terms that are more descriptive of people geographic origins, than their perceived "race."

And now, I have to further educate myself to understand what the New York Times means when it says that Nadine, N.M. is now a "Census Designated Place." It means that they will be counted as a separate place, even though unincorporated, and not as an extension of another place, the nearby town of Hobbs.  Great.  Does this mean they were not really counted before?

It does mean that, precisely.  The New York Times writes:
With only a few hundred souls, it was counted, if at all, as an extension of Hobbs, the nearest real city of about 34,000 people just to the north. (emphasis added)
New, more sophisticated Census rules now allow smaller places, or "hamlets" as the Times says, to be counted on their own right.  The Times argues that this speaks volumes about "ethnic and economic identity in post-recession America" and I tend to agree with this summation.  But it does speak volumes about the whole Census process, as it was at least viewed until now.

In a nutshell, the revised Census rules uncover a greater truth about the bias in Law and Government: we (as a society) were not counting small places because they seemed not to matter to us.  The absence of law and state in rural places is frequently mentioned on this blog, for example here, and here.  That the government turns around and changes policy to include places with lesser population is surely a positive sign, is it not?

Oh, wishful thinking.  It wasn't the Government who changed its mind spontaneously and said: "Forgive our ignorance, we want to learn about your predicament, small hamlets."  The Times article reveals that the change in Census counting rules was the result of relentless lobbying by the "hamlets" throughout the country.
The region made a concentrated effort to get everyone counted, hoping to make the case that the area was ripe for business investment. Given the ferocious competition among small communities for chain stores, restaurants and manufacturers, “everyone got involved in pushing,” said Bob Reid, a board member at the Lea County Community Improvement Corporation.
Encouraging residents to fill out their census forms included a door-to-door campaign and a parade to the post office in Hobbs organized by the Hobbs Hispano Chamber of Commerce, followed by a cookout.
The drumbeat for participation worked: Hobbs’s population, in the new count, grew nearly 17 percent, as did the county’s as a whole. And fingers are crossed: A new farm equipment supply store opened in Hobbs last month.
An inspiring story about grassroots organizations standing up to Big Government! As a result of their lobbying, I am able to correct my naming of the town, per our blogging conventions: Nadine, N.M. (population 376).

1 comment:

Jen Wickens said...

Marta, your post raises important issues. The Census is critical for a number of reasons, but obviously the official reason is to count people for purposes of drawing Congressional districts. Because the number of people living in these small hamlets is negligible as compared with other larger places around the country, it's no wonder why counting those people didn't matter in the overall scheme of things. Of course, if we don't literally count them, then it's easy to say their points of view shouldn't count in policy discussions. I'm glad the hamlet lobby was strong enough to impact the Census and I'm hopeful that it will continue to have a positive effect on Capitol Hill for rural places with a small, but increasingly mighty, voice.