Coronavirus and the Census: California Fears an Undercount

Despite a delay in some deadlines, the dangers of suppressed turnout are high.

In what seems now like another lifetime, in the birthplace of California wine production, Angie Sanchez was tasked with census outreach in the Bay Area. The Latino community organizer decided that standard presentations and handouts wouldn’t cut it. Instead, she reimagined Lotería, a Bingo-like game that’s a staple in many Latino households.

Her version, Censotería, received more than 300 Instagram likes and piqued the interest of census officials in Alabama, Illinois and Texas. The civic participation group that Sanchez works for, the La Luz, partnered with the Latino Community Foundation and printed about 500 copies and distributed them throughout the community. The Latino Community Foundation even made Sanchez’s game freely downloadable.

Now, for all of Sanchez’s creativity, it’s unclear whether this colorful game, which is part of the state’s $187.2 million census effort, will move the needle even slightly. As the coronavirus pandemic upends every aspect of life as Californians know it, it is far from clear what, if anything, will help motivate 11 million hard-to-reach Californians to respond to their questionnaires.

In the next few weeks — between moments of panic — residents across the nation will be asked to respond to nine basic questions about their household as part of a decennial population count and respond largely online. State and community organizers are particularly concerned about this year’s survey. California faces powerful headwinds, not only from the mounting threat of COVID-19, the infection caused by the virus, but also from widespread distrust sowed by the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies, including a failed push to include a citizenship question on the census.

Last week, the Census Bureau pushed back various deadlines for the 2020 census by approximately two weeks, with in-person visits delayed until May 28 at the earliest and the bureau’s deadline to finish field operations pushed back until Aug. 14.

Still, for California, the stakes have never been higher: A low turnout could jeopardize one of the state’s 53 congressional seats, along with billions in federal funding.

No one knows yet how much these developments will impact California’s count but they are widely expected to depress turnout. “It’s been a challenge because we have to take precautions on how we conduct outreach,” said Melissa Vergara from the San Mateo County Office of Community Affairs.

On the same day notices began landing in people’s mailboxes, the governor clamped down on public gatherings in an effort to mitigate the coronavirus, disrupting months of planned outreach events and door-to-door appeals.

And allies have unintentionally sent mixed signals. Civil-rights activists, who spent last year training immigrants to ignore federal agents knocking on their door during nationwide raids, are now encouraging people to open the door to census workers, who are an extension of the federal government.

The Public Policy Institute of California characterizes 29 million Californians at risk of being undercounted. These can be people who are hard to reach because they are homeless, rent, or live in nonstandard housing, such as garages and trailers. They can also be young men who may not respond or children who aren’t properly counted in a questionnaire. Many often lack a reliable Internet connection.

Moreover, it’s race and ethnicity. Nearly 39 percent of California’s population identifies as Latino or Hispanic and there’s concern that government distrust will reduce responses — even among legal residents. Jacqueline Martinez Garcel with the Latino Community Foundation said it has been difficult to assure people that census information will be kept private.

“I think historically we’ve thought about non-citizens or unauthorized immigrants as particularly hard to count,” said Sarah Bohn of the Public Policy Institute of California. “But I think there is concern about whether this environment we’re in right now with regard to immigrants, is going to dissuade even legal immigrants from responding — just because of fear or distrust of the government.”

That’s why the state has allocated more than $106 million on census outreach efforts to fund efforts like Sanchez’s Censotería game, according to state census reports. Mercury Public Affairs LLC won a $46 million contract to lead a media campaign. Overall, California is spending more than any other state.

The state aims to make over 100 million “impressions” which will capture who is looking at the content and how they’re consuming it, whether that’s via mobile or desktop. It will assess its success by comparing targeted populations to live census returns. As completed forms come in, the state will allocate more funding to areas with low returns.

“It’s really critical to get it right,” said Bohn.

California residents benefit from dozens of federal programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, affordable housing and funding for roads, school lunches, early childhood education and foster care. Andrew Reamer of George Washington University estimates California receives $172 billion in federal money based on its population.

Vergara of San Mateo County said the county has changed its strategy in response to the coronavirus outbreak and organizers noticed low turnout at events even before the governor’s executive order. County and state organizers are now pivoting to social media and ramping up a digital ambassador program, a group of preselected online influencers including actor Danny Trejo, mixed martial artist Urijah Faber, and Sacramento Kings basketball player Harrison Barnes. Beyond celebrities, ambassadors include activists as well, such as Rian Buhacoff, who advocates for queer and disabled rights.

“We are encountering the first mainly digital census and we are also encountering groups that have a general fear of the government and of the federal government,” said Diana Crofts-Pelayo, spokeswoman for California Complete Count. “So for us, this is why we have really created this comprehensive outreach and communications approach to really address some of these unprecedented challenges.”

One digital ambassador, Rain Valdez, said she got involved in hopes of raising awareness that many in the LGBTQ community rely on safety net programs. “I knew that with our history as trans people there’s a tendency to erase us from the count,” said the actress, filmmaker and transgender community advocate.

Still, California’s housing crisis and broadband connection remain obstacles. While 74 percent of all households had broadband in 2017, only 67 percent of African Americans and 66 percent of Latino households connected at home, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. “Those are some of the groups that I’m most concerned about getting their responses,” Bohn said. is a nonprofit media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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