Metrodesk: Oakland

Do you speak Oakland? Soon everyone can.

The Language of Government
When Danny Wan took up his post as Oakland’s District 2 city councilmember last fall, he discovered that his new job came with some unexpected duties. “The second week I was here, the security guard at City Hall called down to my office and asked if I could help them translate for someone speaking Chinese who was looking for directions,” he remembers. “Then there was a Cantonese-speaking resident who is not in my district who came to my office; she was very frustrated that she was having problems with some of her neighbors in East Oakland and could not communicate with the police.” He laughs softly as he retells the story–isn’t it ridiculous that apparently one of the few people in the whole City Hall complex who speaks Chinese is the guy who represents Chinatown?

Not any longer, if Wan has his way. Wan, who is originally from Taiwan, as well as City Council president Ignacio De La Fuente, who is originally from Mexico, have put together a piece of legislation they call the “equal access ordinance.” The goal is to provide better access to social services for residents who do not speak English as their primary language. The ordinance mandates that the city provide bilingual services for every language spoken by more than 10,000 Oakland residents–right now, that’s Spanish and Chinese (oral translation will be in Cantonese). Bilingual staffers would be phased into departments, starting with those that have frequent contact with the public such as the police, the public works department, and the rent arbitration board. The ordinance also calls for the translation of printed materials, for the oral interpretation of public meetings upon request, and the establishment of a translation center.

Wan estimates that it will cost about $300,000 annually to implement the ordinance. “As a city, we have an obligation to provide some of these basic services to our taxpayers, and we ought to be able not to exclude people just because they are not proficient in the language we provide services in,” he says.

The proposal went before the council on Tuesday night, where it was voted in unanimously. The ordinance had passed all previous committee meetings with few objections after its supporters cleared up an early misconception that the law would mandate hiring only bilingual staff from now on. (Wan is careful to point out that it merely prioritizes filling existing vacancies with bilingual staffers; departments would perform a self-assessment to determine if they need to hire more bilingual workers.) This makes Oakland the first city in the state to mandate making translation services available to its residents.

Do the Math
The ordinance may have come not a moment too soon. Remember coloring in those census-form bubbles a year ago? The first results from the “short form” that the majority of Americans filled out–which primarily tracked race and population movement–are finally back, and they show that Oakland, along with the entire state of California, is becoming increasingly diverse. The latest headcount shows that in Oakland, the African-American population dropped slightly, down to about 36 percent; the white population stayed nearly constant at about 31 percent; and the Latino and Asian populations both grew to about 22 percent and 16 percent, respectively. (If you’re counting, that adds up to more than one hundred percent, but remember: this year’s census was the first to allow people to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race, and California had one of the highest rates nationwide of people who identified themselves as multiracial.) The city no longer has any single statistically dominant racial group.

As with the rest of the state, Oakland’s biggest growth occurred in its Latino population, which grew 69 percent over the least decade. (About one-third of California’s population is now of Hispanic origin.) Demographers chalk up the increase to large family size as well as growth from international migration. In fact, the US Census Bureau predicts that by 2025, 4 million California residents will have moved to other states, but an additional 8 million new people will have arrived from other nations. This means that Oakland’s pioneering legislation–such as the equal access ordinance–may soon become a model that other California cities will want to copy.

Do Even More Math
But while some census results are in, the number-crunching from the longer form–which only a fraction of the population filled out and which will reveal tasty details like income, housing, and employment rates –isn’t due until 2002, which leaves stats nerds like yours truly champing at the bit. It also leaves us with a few nagging questions, like: Since we took the census during one of the biggest economic boomtimes the Bay Area has ever seen, and since e-businesses have been dropping like flies ever since New Year’s, is it possible that the census is now–already–a little outdated? What about all of those layoffs we’ve heard about, and the softening of the rental market, and those rumors of recent dot-com arrivees going back home to Nebraska?

Before you laugh heartily at the idea that economic change can happen faster than we can count it, consider this: it’s happened before. Census workers point out that the economic recession that hit Southern California particularly hard in 1992 and 1993, leading to the exodus of 430,000 Californians for other states, made many findings contained within the 1990 census nearly moot, and a similar phenomenon happened during the bad economic times after the 1980 census. But, cautions Kenneth Wachter, chair of UC Berkeley’s demography department, it’s still too early to tell if that’s the case this time around. “Although [the worsening economy] is dramatic news, we’re not seeing the sudden transition of Silicon Valley into farmland or something,” he says. “If you were an observer from another planet, it would look like these are very small changes.”

And if you’re thinking that the task of computing results from a dicennial census is just too dang slow to keep pace with economic change, the folks in the federal government agree with you. In fact, the 2000 census was the last of its kind. In the future, everyone will still have to fill out the regular census short form every decade, but starting in about 2003, every year a different one-tenth of the population will also be asked to participate in a new, highly detailed project called the American Community Survey. This will allow demographers to track economic trends with much greater precision than they could with the old census. “The one every ten years will be a quick and dirty headcount to make sure we know how many people live here and where they are for the purposes of redistricting and so on, but all the other things about income and fertility and family structure will be done every year,” explains Marc Perry, a demographer for the US census. “It will really be an incredible advance, [because] with the census, by the time we process the data and get it out, it’s already several years old.”

In the meantime, census workers are still congratulating themselves on the fact that they managed to count a heck of a lot of people. Census participation rates had long been dropping off by about ten percent a decade, but last year, thanks to the help of many community-based organizations that encouraged sometimes reluctant residents to fill out the forms, participation actually increased throughout California. “Everyone was shocked because we’re a very difficult state by dint of size and the diverse population,” says Linda Clark, data services specialist for the regional office that covers California. “It’s not a very easy population to count.”

Making sure that everyone gets counted has real-world implications: those numbers are used to allocate federal funding to states and cities and to draw legislative districts. Unfortunately, even with 2000’s high turnout, some people got overlooked: the census bureau estimates that nationally about 3.4 million people (530,000 of them in California) were undercounted, and that most of them are urban-dwelling ethnic minorities who live in the communties that need those federal funds the most. (Last month, Republicans won a victory when the US Commerce Secretary agreed to use the rough census numbers–not those adjusted for the undercount–as the basis for redistricting.) That doesn’t look good for cities like Oakland, which have high numbers of recent immigrants who need social services. Luckily, thanks to the equal access ordinance, this time we may be ahead of the crowd.

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