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Down for the Count : Cambodians May Have Been Lost in Census, Study Says


Long Beach resident Yin Bunthorn didn't participate in this year's census. A Cambodian refugee who speaks little English, he said he thought the census form was a junk food advertisement and threw it out.

Sam Nou said he recognized the form but didn't have the English skills to complete it. Nou, who is also Cambodian, gave the questionnaire to his father, who threw it out.

Another refugee, Yean Thuork, said he never received the form. "I never even heard of the census," he said through an interpreter.

The three Long Beach residents were not counted in this year's census, and local social workers say they believe thousands of other Cambodian refugees in the city were also missed. Than Pok, executive director of United Cambodian Community social-service agency, said he believes as many as 60% of the Cambodian residents were missed in the census. "It's a big problem," said the official, who added that his estimate was based on informal interviews in the community.

Now, two Cal State Long Beach anthropology professors have conducted an extensive two-block survey of residents in the city's Cambodian neighborhood that may confirm the critics' concerns.

Although they refused to provide specific numbers, the professors said they believe census takers missed a significant number of people in the neighborhood.

Profs. Rebecca Joseph and Pam Bunte said they had a difficult time getting an accurate population count, even after spending several days this summer going door to door in the two-block area, interviewing about 500 residents. Joseph, citing reasons of confidentiality, declined to reveal the location of the area surveyed.

In most cases, people did not speak English and translators had to be used, Joseph said. Many were afraid of letting strangers into their homes.

Often, the Cambodians' extended families, all living under the same roof, made it difficult to sort out and report family relationships.

The community's extreme mobility also made it difficult to get an accurate count. "We'd visit a family, come back two weeks later, and all of them would be gone," Joseph said.

Their survey was one of 29, funded by the Census Bureau itself, to try to determine whether the census missed a significant number of minorities. Activists and city officials throughout the nation have criticized the census, saying a significant number of minorities weren't counted.

The surveys were scheduled well before the 1990 census, said John Connolly, assistant to the census director in Washington. "We look on the census as our decennial snapshot of America, and we want as many people as possible to be included in that snapshot," he said.

The 29 areas selected for the surveys are inhabited largely by ethnic groups believed least likely to participate in the census--blacks, Latinos, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, Connolly said.

Long Beach, generally believed by social workers to have about 40,000 Cambodian refugees, is one of five California sites. Cambodian residents are prime candidates for being undercounted because of poor English skills, high mobility and fear of outsiders, he said.

Latinos were surveyed in two studies in the San Francisco area, a Central Coast area, and in San Diego, he said. Pacific Islanders also were surveyed in the San Francisco studies.

Census officials selected a nonprofit agency in each area to organize the canvassing and gave each organization about $15,000. Some of the agencies contributed additional money to the effort.

In Long Beach, the United Cambodian Community agency was selected to run the survey. The agency hired the professors, who said that their data will have to be analyzed in Washington to determine how many residents may have been missed.

Joseph, one of the professors, said that the census forms themselves also may contribute to the problem because some questions have a cultural bias.

"The questions are structured in a way that reflects a sort of mainstream, middle-class model of household composition," Joseph said.

For example, a Cambodian household often may include in-laws, but census questions about family members generally don't cover in-laws, she said.

The professors' report is due early next year, and census analysts are scheduled to have the data from all surveys compiled by next spring to be compared with actual census results for discrepancies.

Social service officials and community leaders consider census results important because many government agencies use them in determining the levels of funding for programs serving various ethnic groups.

Long Beach officials were drawn into the controversy when they filed an official challenge to the census, contending that a relatively small number of residents were missed.

The city challenged the count in only six blocks, contending a total of 269 residents were missed. The blocks included a four-block patch of central Long Beach crowded with Cambodians and Latinos.

The population discrepancies were determined by comparing the number of utility bills in each city block with the census count of housing units for that block, said Glenn Walker, a part-time information specialist for the city's Advanced Planning Division.

But community workers questioned the utility-bill method of counting residents, pointing out that many immigrants share one utility bill when they occupy one-room apartments in older buildings or other substandard housing without individual meters.

To some Cambodians, however, the issue is simple.

"It's unfair," said Chhan Yin, 43, an unemployed father of five who has difficulty with English and says he was missed by the census. "I'm unhappy about not being counted."

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