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November 4th, 2009 Sasha Ingber | News Stories
 

Not As Simple As 1-2-3

Oregon’s upcoming census could mean another seat in congress.

     
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Oregon stands about 25,000 people away from gaining a sixth congressional district in the 2010 census, according to a consulting firm that analyzes population and political data.

Election Data Services says that makes Oregon one of at least seven states poised to add another seat after the decennial count.

Before you ask who cares whether Oregon adds to its 3.8 million residents, know this: Beyond the additional congressional seat, the higher count would also mean one more electoral vote in presidential elections and a greater share of federal grants for projects ranging from medical assistance to transportation to education.

But Oregon is not alone. Every state faces the 2010 census and is trying to maximize its own count. And the economic downturn and high foreclosure rates make it harder for all 50 states to track down millions of dislocated Americans.

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish and Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury co-chair the local Complete Count Committee that aims to make sure everybody gets counted.

The committee was established June 15 to increase participation among undercounted groups such as homeless people and minorities (only about 16 percent of Multnomah County is nonwhite, but the white population includes new Eastern European immigrants who pose their own language and cultural barriers).

“Multnomah County represents about 20 percent of the state population, so it’s an important target,” says Fish. “We have some advantages. We are a smaller state, and Multnomah County has lots of great nonprofits that have tons of experience dealing with underrepresented groups.”

The committee aims to raise $150,000 and has amassed about two-thirds of that goal—$94,200. Its biggest donations to date have been $25,000 from the City of Portland, and $25,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation, a philanthropic group.

This money will go to nonprofits that work with Latinos, Native Americans, Africans, African-Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders, immigrants and the homeless.

“We decided if we really wanted to have these community organizations focus the time and energy necessary, we should compensate them financially,” Kafoury says. “We are hoping to get $20,000 grants to each community.”

The Complete Count Committee has not yet established its partners, but hopes to do so by December after vetting groups’ proposals. If you’re wondering whether the local chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, with its high-profile travails, is in the mix of groups hoping to receive grants, Kafoury says she’s unaware of any plans. ACORN didn’t return WW’s calls.

The partner groups face some stiff challenges. People in historically undercounted communities often come from cultures that distrust government. And such distrust is not unique to immigrants. In September, a Census Bureau worker was found hanged in rural Kentucky with the word “fed” scrawled on his chest. Police are still unsure whether the attack was linked to the victim’s work. “A lot has changed since the first post-9/11 census,” says Beckie Lee, chief of staff for the Complete Count Committee. “Trust in the government has not gone up.”

So how do Oregon’s efforts compare with those in a similar state? Minnesota, which has about 5.2 million people and a nonwhite population of 11 percent, is within 12,899 people of losing a congressional district, according to one estimate by Election Data Services.

The Minnesota Partnership Project has been working since 2003 to mobilize a thorough statewide count.

While the Minnesota group has been working longer than Oregon’s, it has no money to give nonprofits, says Marcia Avner, public policy director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, which oversees the Partnership Project.

As in Multnomah County, with its Complete Count Committee, there are more localized efforts. Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul launched a task forcein spring to work with 20 organizations in Ramsey County.

The Mayoral Task Force is already engaging the community by attending various events—three on Oct. 10 alone. The task force is also recruiting workers, setting up training centers and using unconventional methods, like dispensing census-themed fortune cookies, to spread awareness.

Told about groups elsewhere that are further along than Multnomah County’s Complete Count Committee, Kafoury says the group hopes to begin its work in January.

“You run a fear of burning out if you try to work too quickly,” she says. “I wish we started sooner in the planning process, but in terms of getting messages out, the timeline is good.”

Martin Gonzalez is board president of the Latino Network, one of the potential partners of the Complete Count Committee.

“In terms of the campaign itself,” says Gonzalez, also a Portland School Board member, “we don’t have one at this point. But there is awareness of the importance of it.”


FACTS: “For every 100 people missed in the census, it’s estimated that we will lose $1.2 million over 10 years,” says Beckie Lee, chief of staff for the Complete Count Committee.

Other states poised to gain one seat along with Oregon, according to Election Data Services, are Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Nevada and Utah.

 
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