"Hello! My name is Olivia Kusch and I'm with the U.S. Census Bureau. I'm here to ..."
The man fidgets uncomfortably in front of me.
"Ay, no no, no hablo, uhh ..."
"Esta bien! Estoy una estudiante de español! Tienes unos minutos?"
The man laughs in surprise, but also in relief.
I had similar interactions countless times — people delighted that I would try to communicate with them rather than walk away, leaving them with a flier and a door in the face. In truth, though, my Spanish is mediocre at best. I put on my application for the census that I could speak "some" Spanish, making a point to emphasize the "some" in my interview.
I didn't realize what a difference this effort to communicate with Spanish-speaking communities would make.
Since I indicated some level of language skills, my interview assignments were almost exclusively those labeled: "LANGUAGE BARRIER: SPANISH." Throughout my shifts, not only were most of my interviews with Spanish-speaking households, but they were also almost exclusively in trailer parks or run-down apartment complexes.
Protocol when you reach a house with a language barrier, specifically a Spanish-speaking one, is to hand them a "Notice of Visit" flier, which explains to them how to complete the census questionnaire online or by phone.
However, these communities, in trailer parks and smaller apartment complexes, are often the ones with less access to stable internet connections, and then these people do not get counted. It becomes the ongoing cycle: They don't have the resources to comply, they don't get counted, they are not provided the resources to comply because they didn't get counted, etc.
Furthermore, due to the lack of effective communication, these communities may not fully understand the importance of completing the census, the fact that completing it means more resources for their communities.
Due to the lack of willingness of the Census Bureau to accommodate language barriers and the needs of marginalized neighborhoods, I believe many of these communities were severely undercounted across the board last year. How can we truly rely on accurate counts of people and estimations of the resources they need if we aren't providing adequate resources for everyone to get counted?
What happens now is that these households do not get counted, and their circumstances and the general demographics of the areas are not considered when the government decides how to split up funding for schools, hospitals and public funding, which, I might add, is the entire purpose of the census.
To ensure equal opportunity, we need to provide equal resources.
Olivia Kusch is a student at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.