The countdown is on: In just a little under a year, the U.S. census will take place, a once-a-decade effort to count everyone in the U.S. and divvy up government dollars and political representation accordingly.
Work is already underway in the Bay Area to encourage people to participate so that the count will be accurate. According to state Assemblyman Marc Berman, who represents The Almanac's coverage area and chairs the Assembly Select Committee on the Census, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are two of the 20 hardest-to-count counties in the state, and among the top 100 hardest-to-count counties in the U.S.
In San Mateo County, three of the hardest-to-count areas are expected to be Redwood City, East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks, according to county census management analyst Megan Gosch.
One year in advance of the official "Census Day" scheduled April 1, 2020, the county held an event in Redwood City to launch its public outreach efforts. On April 2, Berman participated in a press conference in Sacramento alongside Dolores Huerta, the famous union leader and advocate for farmworkers and women, urging people to do their part to make sure they're counted in the census.
Berman told The Almanac that his committee is working to convene leaders and get more funding to support outreach about the census. So far, he said, the state has set aside an "unprecedented" amount of funding for the census, with about $100 million already earmarked for census education, outreach and coordination. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also proposed an additional $54 million in his budget.
"If you're not counted, you're not woke," Huerta announced at the conference, using the term "young people" use to describe being aware of social injustice issues, adding the slogan she coined, "Si se puede!" which is Spanish for "Yes we can," and the motto of the United Farm Workers of America.
The stakes of the census are significant, a point multiple speakers at the conference emphasized. The census is used to determine how districts are drawn and how people get representation. In addition, according to the California Department of Finance, it's estimated that for every Californian not counted in 2020, state and local governments will lose $1,950 per resident per year. Over 10 years, that adds up to nearly $20,000 a person.
Even though the official count isn't for about a year, county staff is hard at work to promote awareness about the census and its significance. The initiative is being led by the county's Office of Community Affairs. Its April 1 launch event, held at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, was attended by about 150 people, according to Gosch.
The citizenship question
A big question mark is whether census respondents will be asked if they are U.S. citizens. The Trump administration's attempt to get the question on the census has been challenged in court, and the ruling on whether the question will be permitted on the survey isn't expected until June, when the matter is scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court.
If the court rules to permit the question on the census, it's likely to decrease trust and dampen response rates from immigrant residents, explained Berman. Currently, he said, a lot of Californians are distrustful of the federal government when it comes to the census due not only to the potential citizenship question, but to "the vitriolic discourse, the immigrant bashing and xenophobia we've seen, and the spread of white nationalism we've seen in the country over the past couple of years," he added.
To allay these concerns, he said, public outreach will likely emphasize two key points: First, that it is "totally safe" to provide one's information in the census. Information collected during the census cannot, by law, be used for any reason other than census purposes, he explained. Second, participating in the census is important for shaping how much money the state and communities get back from the federal government. California sends more in taxes to the federal government than it gets back, and if the census doesn't yield an accurate count, the state might get less money back than it does currently, he added.
The county will be preparing as if the citizenship question will be included on the survey, Gosch explained, and readying those involved to explain that census data is protected and cannot be used by other government departments.
The question is included on the American Community Survey, a much more in-depth survey conducted to collect information about how people live across the country, but has not been used on the census for decades – an important distinction, because the census directly affects how federal representation and dollars are allotted across the country.
'Unconventional' housing challenges
Another factor that may affect the count's accuracy is that, because of the high cost of housing in the area, many households are living in "nontraditional" housing situations that make it hard to count people, whether that's people living in garages or RVs, as well as multiple households living in a housing unit, Gosch explained.
The county already had to update its database of where households are located in advance of the census.
This was an important step to improve the accuracy of the census count, Berman explained. "If the Census Bureau doesn't have an address, they're not going to reach out to the household. Because of the housing crisis in California – especially in Silicon Valley, and especially on the Peninsula - we have a lot of people living in unconventional housing situations."
To avoid undercounting those households, the county worked with several organizations, including Nuestra Casa, an East Palo Alto-based nonprofit focused on addressing the needs of the city's Latino community, to canvass the community for under-the-radar housing units and update the county's housing database accordingly, Gosch said. They found more than 1,900 such housing units across the county, with 278 in Redwood City, 138 in Menlo Park and 701 in East Palo Alto, and updated more than 30,000 addresses in the county.
Partnering with nonprofits and community-based organizations that are well known in the community is a key strategy for the county in earning the trust and responses of "hard to count" communities, she added.
"That's why we're working with trusted messengers: to alleviate fear and anxiety," Gosch said.
Historically, the census has undercounted young children, people of color, rural residents and low-income households at higher rates than other population groups, according to a 2014 report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil and human rights group. Also, families without reliable internet or computers -- as well as those that move frequently or are led by single parents -- can have lower response rates, according to the CUNY Center for Urban Research, which compiled an interactive online map of hard-to-count census areas here.
The county has assembled multiple committees to develop strategies to reach hard-to-count communities, and has so far received about $228,000 from the state's census office for its efforts. Plans for additional funding are also in the works, Gosch said. In addition, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation plans to distribute about $1 million to nonprofits in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to aid in public outreach for the census, she added.
The upcoming census also means that the U.S. Census Bureau is initiating a hiring spree in earnest. JobTrain, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit that provides career training to people in need, will be hosting a workshop on Saturday, April 6, where attendees can ask U.S. Census Bureau officials questions and work on their applications.
According to Ruben Avelar, who manages special contracts and outreach at JobTrain, the Census Bureau is starting its hiring process now because the federal vetting process to hire people takes some time.
Listed rates for census work are $24 an hour for an office clerk position to $33 an hour as a field supervisor or recruitment assistant. Many census workers can also select their own hours, he added.
"We saw the opportunity to step up and be a good partner," he said. "We wanted to do our piece to let people know that this is important to our community and our region.
"If we undercount, it could mean a decrease in federal and state funding for the region," he said. "I think the county is doing everything (it) can to get the word out there."
The Saturday workshop will be held from 9 a.m. to noon at JobTrain at 1200 O'Brien Drive in Menlo Park.
Another recruitment workshop is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 20, at the San Mateo Adult School at 789 E. Poplar Ave. in San Mateo.
What to expect
Looking ahead, people can expect to be mailed a postcard about the census in late March 2020, with three options to complete the census: online, on paper, or by phone.
Efforts are also underway to ensure language access on the survey, because it is expected to only be offered in English and Spanish in print. There are about 200 languages spoken in California, Berman said.
This is the first time the census will be administered online, and about 88 percent of county residents are expected to respond that way, with the rest expected to respond via paper surveys, according to Gosch.