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To Get Minorities, Census Tries the Personal Touch

April 19, 1999|ELEANOR YANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Standing at the front of the classroom, Nhi Ho smiled continuously as he used his native tongue to speak to the recent Vietnamese immigrants studying English.

"I'm one of you," Ho said, looking out at the group as they painted Easter eggs as part of a culture lesson. "You can trust me."

The students are among the more than 344,000 Asians who live in Orange County, according to a 1997 Census Bureau projection, and it's Ho's job to find ways to persuade the community to put aside an ingrained mistrust of government and participate in Census 2000.

For the last national head count, in 1990, there is evidence that minorities in California were undercounted by as much as 2.7%, critics of the Census Bureau note, citing the agency's own statistic. In Orange County, about 4.9% of people who described themselves as ethnic Hispanics and 1.9% of Asian Pacific Islanders were believed to have been undercounted.

Although those figures seem small, federal funds are doled out based on population figures: The undercounting during the 1990 census translates into a loss of about $2.2 billion for the state, according to federal figures.

The undercounting of minorities has grown more acute in the last 10 years, which have seen the biggest wave of legal immigrants entering the United States since World War I, officials said. In California, nearly 25% of the population is believed to be foreign-born. That figure is higher in Los Angeles County, for example, where more than 30% of the population is said to have been born outside the United States.

While Congress is embroiled in a lengthy debate over the use of statistical sampling and other suggestions for conducting the upcoming head count, regional census officials said they are taking steps to boost census participation through grass-roots efforts.

For Census 2000--a project that organizers hail as the largest peacetime effort in the nation's history--they said they have started their campaign earlier than ever.

They have launched an unprecedented effort to target the nation's schools to reach the most undercounted of any group: children. Over the next few weeks, every teacher from kindergarten through high school will be given a "mini civics lesson" on the importance of the census, in the hopes they will pass the information on to schoolchildren.

"That way, [students] can go home and tell their parents how important the census is," said John Reeder, director of the census for Southern California.

On another front, they have launched a $100-million advertising campaign aimed at minorities: "This is your future. Don't leave it blank," read the glossy ads.

And the Census Bureau is recruiting hundreds of workers like Ho, who will promote and explain the census to immigrant groups across the country. There will be roughly 600 such workers nationwide, including 30 focusing on Southern California and Hawaii.

Reeder said the current efforts are a reaction to the criticism that followed the 1990 census, which had a lower response rate than its preceding two censuses.

"We received some criticism that if we had just come a little earlier, they could have done more," Reeder said.

Starting in March 1997, organizers began the time-consuming process of putting together "complete count committees" that involve a variety of community leaders, from mayors and city council members to school principals. They'll begin holding their first formal meetings in Orange County in the upcoming weeks.

There are plans to open census offices in Huntington Beach, Irvine and Anaheim that will serve as home base for some of the roughly 3,300 employees that will go door-to-door in Southern California to follow up on census forms mailed out to residents.

Ho plans to spend the next several months working within Orange County's Asian community, reminding residents of the importance of the census. But he knows that before he can persuade them to provide personal information to the government--from how many family members they live with to how much money the household earns--he must first gain their trust.

As a community liaison who specializes in networking, Ho schedules about 10 census-promoting speeches and community events every week. Ho said he was hired for the job because of his contributions to newspapers and other media outlets serving the Vietnamese community, his attendance at local events and his involvement with student groups.

Ho says he plans to go about his mission one resident at a time. Take Bich Tong, a 34-year-old student who emigrated from Vietnam five years ago. Tong was one of the students listening to Ho's presentation during classes at Anselm Indo Chinese Refugee Center in Garden Grove.

"I would not lie to or betray you," Ho told Tong in Vietnamese, his eyes focused intently on hers. "I know some of you have information you don't want the government to know--the way you live, how much money you earn. I don't care. The information is private. We need it, though, to help you. I'm here to help you help yourselves."

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