Every 10 years the U.S. Census Bureau undertakes the enormous task of counting every person living within the nation’s borders. As the 2010 census approaches, the Catholic Church has joined in the effort to make sure that all residents — especially those that are hardest to reach — are included in the final tally.

Since it was first conducted in 1790, the census has been a valuable tool in not only keeping track of population growth but also in determining how more than $400 billion of federal funds are directed for schools, hospitals and public works projects. Recognizing the need for an accurate count, the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church has partnered with the Census Bureau and other organizations to try to reach segments of the population often excluded or undercounted.

Archbishop José Gomez of San Antonio explained in a statement that the Church has a responsibility to help with the census because the information gathered is vital to its ministry.

“The U.S. census is a useful tool for learning about God’s people, who and where they are, and many other facts that shed light on their lives, possibilities and struggles,” said Archbishop Gomez, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity. “A Church that seeks to evangelize is characterized by outreach. The U.S. census gives us important information to do that.”

Beverly Carroll, assistant director for African American Affairs for the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity, told Our Sunday Visitor that the populations who are often not counted are in many cases the same groups that the Church strives to aid in their various ministries. Without an accurate census count, it can be difficult to help those populations get the resources they need.

“Especially when you are dealing with immigrant communities and the poor, so much is connected to that count. So it is very important for those of us who try to be of service to these communities to help find out how much is needed,” she said. “And it is easier to do it during census time than coming back and trying to make a case when the need arises.”

For some groups, the need is not just to make sure that people are counted, but where they are counted. For example, a coalition of black leaders has called for prison inmates to be tallied in their home communities, not in the towns where they are incarcerated.

Although the bishops’ conference has helped with the census before, Carroll said this year a stronger effort is being made to ensure the count’s accuracy.

“Immigration is such a big issue this year that it seems to me there is a greater push [for an accurate count],” Carroll said. “I think more people now, through their advocacy efforts at the local level, realize the importance of getting everyone counted and what that means for their communities, whether it is for education, housing, services or health care.”

Developing trust

While there are several obstacles that prevent people from filling out the census form, such as language barriers or the lack of a permanent mailing address, perhaps the greatest hindrance is the fear many people have of government institutions.

“There is a sense of reluctance on the part of immigrants — not only Hispanics but all new immigrants — to be counted,” said Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity’s assistant director for Hispanic affairs. “And that is because they don’t have relationships to the institutions of our society, and in some instances they don’t trust that the information the government gets through the census would not be used for other things.”

Especially among undocumented immigrants, there is a fear that handing over their information could lead to arrest or deportation. But federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing personal information with other agencies, a fact that Aguilera-Titus says the Church can convey more easily than the government.

“What the bishops are looking at doing is helping to build a level of trust among this new immigrant population that indeed the information that the census gathers is not going to be used against them,” he said.

Among those populations who may not have a solid relationship with government institutions, the Church is often seen as a trusted ally. That puts Catholic organizations in a unique position of being able to convince them that taking part in the census is safe.

“Our pastors and workers in various ministries have already established relationships with many of those hard-to-count populations,” said Michele Taylor, assistant director of communications for the Florida Catholic Conference and a member of the state’s Complete Count Committee.

“They can utilize and build on the trust and respect that they’ve already developed with these groups in order to alleviate those fears that come along with filling out the census form,” she said.

Getting the message out

Taylor told OSV that the local Church will use its established channels of communication through parishes and outreach programs to connect with people who may not otherwise complete the census form.

“We’re going to be able to utilize that network to facilitate the delivery of a positive census message, to convey its importance and encourage participation,” she said.

The USCCB hopes to make as much information available as possible to prepare people for the mailing of the census forms. And while the goal is for as many people as possible to return their forms by mail, the bishops’ conference is also prepared to help in the follow-up process of counting those who didn’t respond.

“We see these people — they are at the soup kitchens, they are coming to us for other kinds of resources and services — so we serve as a friendly voice in seeing if they were counted or if they need some assistance,” Carroll said.

Taylor added that pastors and parish ministers will play a crucial role in continuing to mobilize the faithful and to send the message that a complete, accurate count benefits the population as a whole.

“We need to be looking at the larger picture and how it serves the common good,” she said.

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

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