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California goes all in for the census

People walking along an Orange County sidewalk, following the creation of a census panel set up by former Gov. Jerry Brown. (Photo: Associated Press)

As the country prepares for the important 2020 census, California is throwing more resources than ever into making sure its population is properly counted.

The state already has set aside $100 million for the event, far more than either the $2.3 million in today’s dollars it committed in 2010 or the $28.8 million in today’s dollars it did in 2000, according to the state legislative analyst’s office report.

The census is so critical because it only takes place once every 10 years and is used to determine such as Congressional representation and federal funding.

The $100 million in two budget years under former Gov. Jerry Brown is also well above what any other state is allocating for the effort, and roughly a fourth of the $400 million set aside across the country for the census, according to earlier estimates by California census officials.

Gov. Newsom’s proposed 2019-20 state budget includes another $50 million for the census.

On April 2, a year before Census Day, the state is kicking off a week-long “Call to Action” to stress the importance of getting a complete and accurate count.

“We see the census as a process of belonging,” said Trena Turner, executive director of Stockton-based Faith in the Valley, which is helping spread the word. “It’s all of us standing up and not being ‘othered’ and making like (we) don’t matter. The opposite of ‘othering’ is belonging but you have to stand up and be counted.”

The census is so critical because it only takes place once every 10 years and is used to determine such as Congressional representation and federal funding.

Many worry undocumented immigrants won’t show up to be counted because of a citizenship question that will be added.

California has reason to be concerned about an undercount because that’s exactly what happened in 1990, the legislative analyst’s office said.

That year, the census undercounted California’s population by 2.74 percent (about 835,000 people) and subsequently gained one fewer seat in Congress and lost an estimated $200 million annually in federal funds, or about $2 billion over the decade. The 2000 and 2010 censuses produced far more accurate counts.

The Public Policy Institute of California released a report in October saying that if the state does a poor job tracking undocumented immigrants, it could miss counting 1.6 million people and lose one of its 53 Congressional seats. However, the legislative analyst’s office thinks this is unlikely because technology and survey methods have improved substantially since the 1990 undercount.

Still, many worry undocumented immigrants won’t show up to be counted because of a citizenship question that will be added. Though the U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether the question is constitutional, Turner believes the damage has already been done.

“There is very low trust in our government,” she said.

“We are the trusted messengers. People will come to us for understanding of what’s going on.” — Treena Turner

Nonetheless, Turner said her group Faith in the Valley will do its best to make sure people understand the census and its implications.  The group is working under national organization Faith in Action, which was just announced as one of 10 community-based organizations partnering with California to publicize the census.

Faith in the Valley helps Central Valley residents improve their lives in several areas including education, immigration, restorative justice, environmental justice, health and housing. “We are the trusted messengers,” she said. “People will come to us for understanding of what’s going on.”

The Sacramento Region Community Foundation, another of the community-based organizations working on the effort, is also helping get the word out. The group helps individuals and corporations with philanthropic giving in such areas as education, food and the arts.

Linda Beech Cutler, chief executive officer of Sacramento Region Community Foundation, said the organization is already very knowledgeable about the census and its impact and feels a deep responsibility to help make sure the count is as accurate as possible.

The foundation will be coordinating outreach efforts for 17 counties and will do that by partnering with other local organizations.

“To really do this work to the degree it needs to be done – I think the state has underfunded this work.” — Linda Beech Cutler

One area Cutler is concerned about potentially harming the count is that for the first time, the census will be largely conducted over the Internet. Some people don’t have access to the Internet in their homes and others are concerned about security breaches. She pointed as an example to one educated elected official she knows who will only participate in a paper survey because she is concerned about the safety of her data online.

Cutler is also concerned that the record funding allocated by California still isn’t enough. She said the current political environment and low-level of trust in government will make the census count more difficult. “To really do this work to the degree it needs to be done – I think the state has underfunded this work,” she said.

Certain groups have been historically undercounted in the past, according to the legislative analyst’s office.

The U.S. Census Bureau found that after the 2010 census, non-Hispanic blacks were undercounted by 2.07 percent, American Indians living on reservations were undercounted by 4.88 percent, renters were undercounted by 1.09 percent and young children up to four years of age were undercounted by .72 percent.

Other groups that have been more difficult to count include those who do not speak English fluently, lower-income people, people born outside the U.S., the homeless and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, the legislative analyst’s office report said.

“They can be hard to locate, hard to contact, hard to persuade to be interviewed,” said Tess Thorman, a research associate at Public Policy Institute of California.

Another possible challenge is getting enough census workers to follow up with people who don’t respond to online or paper surveys.  According to the legislative analyst’s office report, this effort requires hiring tens of thousands of workers. If the economy remains good and unemployment is low, it may be challenging to find enough census workers. A report from the federal government accountability office notes that “in early hiring for 2020, bureau officials reported smaller than expected applicant pools, declined offers and turnover.”

But the legislative analyst’s office is optimistic about the count and believes California won’t face any loss of Congressional seats of federal funding. “In a worst-case scenario, an undercount could result in the state losing tens of millions of dollars – not billions of dollars – in federal funding. In budgetary terms, this amount of money is very small.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a Capitol Weekly series on the impact of the 2020 census on California.

 


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