Despite Reprieve From Supreme Court, Census Watchers Worry About 2020

Government and nonprofit officials in Alameda County are on high alert for the 2020 census.

Even though next U.S. Census will not include a controversial question about citizenship favored by President Trump, Alameda County officials, nonprofit service providers, and activists fear the worst. With the administration routinely intimidating immigrants under fear of deportation, each resident left uncounted during the constitutionally mandated tally would lose the county roughly $1,000 per year.

That means that if Alameda County’s population is undercounted by just 3 percent, officials estimate the county could lose more than $1 billion over the next decade. The impacts of such cuts are difficult to quantify, though no less daunting, said Casey Farmer, Executive Director of the Alameda County Complete Count Committee.

“It’s not possible to know the exact programs that would be affected by an undercount — how many Head Start spots we would lose, how many food stamp subsidies or healthcare subsidies we would lose,” Farmer said. “But we know that the census count is used as an important variable to determine how many dollars go where. We don’t know how many Section 8 vouchers or shelter funds we could lose, but any reduction that doesn’t accurately reflect our community could cause a massive loss of funding.”

For public services throughout California, federal funding provides $76 billion per year. According to census data, in fiscal year 2015, more than half of that spending was for MediCal. The runner-up category, food stamps, accounted for 10 percent.

All of that is allocated proportionally to state and county populations counted in the census. Because 60 percent of the Alameda County’s budget relies on federal funding, officials say it’s paramount to count as many of its estimated 413,000 “hard-to-count” residents as possible — that’s around 26 percent of the county’s total population. Although the median census response rate was close to 75 percent nationwide in 2010, surveys by the Census Bureau have already indicated that the average could go down to 67 percent next year. With President Trump routinely demonizing immigrants in a manner of ways, advocates fear that his mere comments could succeed in suppressing accurate counts even further.

Among such hard-to-count populations — which are based on factors including the percentage of foreign-born residents, low-income households, majority-renter populations, homeless, and disabled residents — the census tracts with the lowest rate of mail-return are concentrated largely in Fremont, Hayward, Oakland, and Berkeley. Census Tract 4377.022 in South Hayward, for example, saw only 59 percent of census forms mailed back in 2010. Its population at the time was 50 percent foreign-born, 94 percent renters, and 44 percent without high school diplomas. Some 78 percent of the population was Hispanic/Latino, 35 percent of households had limited English proficiency, and the same percentage earned less than half of the federal poverty rate. Census Tract 4401 in West Oakland, by contrast, had the same mail response rate, but featured less than a quarter of foreign-born residents and a whopping 47 percent of residents earning halfway below the poverty line.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overrule a lower-court ruling barring a citizenship question from the 2020 Census, dismissing the Justice Department’s arguments as “contrived.” On Tuesday as this story was going to press, the administration agreed to omit the question from the count. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors had unanimously opposed the citizenship question last year, and on the morning of the Supreme Court’s announcement on June 27th, activists gathered with Supervisors Wilma Chan and Nate Miley to express both relief and consternation.

“While we’re relieved that the census will not ask about citizenship status, we recognize how severely the actions of the Trump Administration have frightened, and even terrorized, our immigrant neighbors,” said Rona Popal, Executive Director of the Afghan Coalition, a Fremont-based advocacy group. “We stand here to remind everyone that they belong in Alameda County and they must get counted on the Census next spring.”

The county estimates that an accurate count will cost only 7 to 12 dollars per resident, and Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced an $187 million budget allocation to fund census outreach efforts. But because hard-to-count communities may feel especially threatened by government agencies, the county will need the help of grassroots activists and organizers to get the job done. Outreach will generally have to focus making sure otherwise fearful immigrant communities are made aware that the U.S. Census Bureau legally must keep all individual responses confidential, even from other government agencies.

“We now have the strongest census confidentiality in the history of the census,” declared Julia Marks, a Staff Attorney with the Asian Law Caucus. “The Census Bureau is not allowed to share information about individual responses with anyone. Documents from redistricting experts working with the Trump administration show that the citizenship question was intentionally designed to discriminate against communities of color. Participating in the census is an opportunity to show the power of our communities, and to fight for the representation and resources we all need. The threat of that question has unfortunately created significant fear, and much of that fear remains.”

Census intimidation could not only affect funding for critical services, but how that funding is allocated. “Median income measures are impacted by census data, so when we don’t count all of our people, the numbers get distorted,” said Ronald Flannery, spokesperson for the East Bay Housing Organizations nonprofit. “That makes it incredibly difficult to provide more affordable housing for lower-income communities.”

“It’s almost like shadowboxing,” Flannery said of the Trump administration’s cruelty toward Latinx residents and communities of color. “There’s direct persecution and oppression, but also systematic methods of manipulating data to cut services.”

Flannery said there is an advocacy step for organizations such as his. Such efforts could be as basic as “just going into the buildings with this frame and saying, ‘this is very important, don’t be afraid to be counted.'” Additionally, as a consortium of affordable housing developers and property managers, his organization will be conducting education efforts among its members to underscore the importance of an accurate count.

For immigrant communities that fear the intrusion of anyone resembling government agents, the county also has enlisted stakeholders from immigrant communities in the private sector to help with outreach efforts.

“The private sector can serve as a bridge,” said Jennifer Tran, Executive Director of the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. “When the immigrant community doesn’t get services, that affects employees, that affects businesses’ ability to function. It’s not always about economics. There are small property owners concerned about their tenants being able to stay there — for instance, a lot of property owners only accept Section 8 residents, because they were once recipients of housing vouchers.”

It will take organizing not just within tight-knit ethnic enclaves, but also broader solidarity among the East Bay’s immigrant community as a whole.

“Even though we’re with the Vietnamese community,” Tran added, “we understand that we have to take the lead because other communities cannot — because of the privileges afforded to us by our refugee status.”

Almaz Yihdego, Executive Director of Global Communications Education and Art, shares that similar perspective. “We work with the community on many issues, immigration issues and housing issues, so they trust us,” said Yihdego, whose group which advocates on behalf of local African immigrant communities. “We have to tell them that this census is important for receiving those services, and that they’ll have privacy. They don’t trust the government, they don’t trust anything — but they trust their own people.”

Spreading this dual message — not only that census responses are confidential, but that accurate counts are vital for public welfare — will be as impactful as any other grassroots campaign in the East Bay as the 2020 election season approaches.

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