The 2010 Census won't begin for another three years, but advocacy groups already are jockeying to have issues they care about included in the questionnaire that will be sent to every American household.
Child welfare groups are fighting the government's decision to drop foster care from the choices listed to describe the relationships of people living under one roof. Ethnic advocacy groups, led by the Arab American Institute, are lobbying to add a question about ancestry.
In addition to providing a demographic portrait of an increasingly diverse nation, the Census is used to apportion seats in Congress, redraw political districts and allocate federal funds.
Census data also are crucial to special-interest groups. Knowing how many people that they represent and where they live helps them gain clout and money. "All the stakeholders who work with the Census Bureau have been negotiating real estate on the form," says Helen Samhan of the Arab American Institute. "We want to reach out to many Americans for whom race alone is not a sufficient or meaningful identity."
The wrangling over which Census questions to add or delete heats up around this time every 10 years when the agency submits its plans to Congress for approval.
Tension is higher this decade because big changes are coming in the 2010 Census. For the first time since 1930, there will be no "long form." The lengthier survey previously has gone to one in every six households and asked about everything from property taxes and indoor plumbing to education, ancestry and commuting patterns.
Instead of using the long form, the Census Bureau is asking the same detailed questions every year through the new American Community Survey. The survey goes to fewer people at one time — about 3 million households a year. Smaller ethnic groups, including Arab-Americans, say that survey can't document their populations as accurately as the long form did.
Every household in 2010 will get a shorter Census form, as required by the Constitution. This "short form" asks all members of every household their gender, age, race, ethnicity, relationship to the head of household and whether the home is owned or rented.
The government wants to keep the "short form" as short as possible. It dropped the foster care category in favor of asking whether anyone in the household sometimes lives elsewhere — children away at college, for example.
That means there won't be a way to know whether the financial status of more than 500,000 children in foster care is improving, says William O'Hare, senior fellow at the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count program. "That's the big issue for us."
Advocacy groups will keep pressing their concerns. "Our concern is basically to make sure that the 2010 short form Census is the most inclusive," Samhan says.