A lot could change in 2020 — and it’s not just because of the upcoming presidential election.
The 2020 census may not sound all that sexy, but it’s about money and power. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts a campaign to count each person in the country every 10 years, and those numbers are used to determine how much federal funding and Congressional representation that states receive.
An undercount of Californians could mean the loss of a Congressional seat and funding totaling $19,500 for each person who goes uncounted, said Mary Booher, who’s coordinating census outreach efforts for Napa County. It could also mean less-than-optimal redistricting in Board of Supervisors districts, if enough people go uncounted in a single area.
Napa County has accepted $100,000 in state funding for public education efforts for the census, which starts April 1, 2020.
“When you fill out the form, you are really representing and giving a voice to your community,” said Diana Crofts-Pelayo, communications chief of California Complete Count, the state group that’s handling census outreach.
In total, the state has put $100 million toward outreach efforts, Crofts-Pelayo said. Gov. Gavin Newsom has requested the Legislature appropriate an additional $54 million for the same purpose.
And while California is spending more on outreach than any other state, there are unique challenges facing the census, she said.
This will be the first year that the Census is offered online, and paper questionnaires will only be printed in English and Spanish, Crofts-Pelayo said. The online form will only be available in 12 languages and they aren’t the top 12 languages spoken in California, she said.
California also has a significant foreign-born population, and some foreign-born or newly immigrated residents may not know what the census is, or that filling it out is a requirement.
The census is also taking place in an election year, which means it’s competing for television airtime and voters’ attention, Crofts-Pelayo said.
Jenny Ocon of the UpValley Family center is spearheading county efforts to identify and reach out to hard-to-count populations. Napa County has a strong coalition of community and government leaders who are working to ensure the population is accurately counted, she said.
County outreach organizers are focusing in part on people who aren’t comfortable with technology or don’t have good internet access and residents living in remote areas of northern Napa County.
Booher of the county said the group is also working hard to identify jails, nursing homes, farmworker centers and other so-called aggregate populations that are counted in a different way.
The county hopes to reach out to young adults filling out the census for the first time.
“Because it happens every 10 years, it’s not always on the minds of people,” Ocon said. “It’s a good opportunity to educate people as to why we do this.”
The largest population of undercounted people is children 5 years old or younger, said Elba Gonzalez-Mares of Community Health Initiative, who is also working on community outreach. That could be because of overcrowding in the midst of a housing crisis — some families may be sharing homes or apartments and don’t want to disclose the total number of people in their household for fear a landlord will find out, she said.
Citizenship question challenged
Adding to the misplaced fear surrounding the census is the possibility that a question about citizenship status could be re-added to the questionnaire for the first time since 1960, when the government decided the question could suppress the census count. But in March, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, went against its recommendations and approved plans to add the question, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
In the latter case, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman of New York sided with the New York Immigration Coalition and New York State, calling Ross’ rationale for the decision a “sham justification.” The administration appealed Furman’s ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear arguments for the case on April 23.
If the Supreme Court reverses Furman’s opinion, it could cause fear for immigrant families who don’t understand how seriously the Census Bureau takes the privacy and confidentiality of respondents, Gonzalez-Mares said. That fear doesn’t just come from the census, but comes from turning on the news, and seeing headlines about closing the border and families being separated, she said.
Such news could give immigrants the wrong idea when they receive their notice from the Census Bureau.
“It’s just better to hide, right? And stay away,” she said. “Even though it’s so important for you to document correctly.”
Though critics of the citizenship question are wary of the upcoming Supreme Court date, census outreach workers remain positive.
“California is really ahead of the game,” said Crofts-Pelayo of California Complete Count. “This time around, we are ensuring that we are doing our best.”
To view Napa County’s hardest-to-count Census tracts, use this interactive map: