2020 Census Workers Brace for Tough S.F. Count

One year out, California ramps up its 2020 Census preparations in a state home to some of the nation’s hardest-to-count counties — including San Francisco.

For every road repaved, school built, and Medicare payout allocated, the Census was there, with numbers to justify the federal funding.

Per the Constitution, every single person in the United States must be counted each decade to apportion Congressional seats, something that informs every facet of life under the government’s purview. With more than 327 million people in the country, it’s a massive undertaking that requires intensive planning, debates around which questions to ask, and field work in the years between. The Census Bureau estimates a total cost of $15.6 billion for next year’s count.

California, like other states, started the arduous process of reaching out to its various populations well before the Census postcards are sent out in March 2020. But the Golden State is home to 10 of the 50 counties nationwide that are considered the hardest to count — among them Fresno, Alameda, Sacramento, and San Francisco. Factors range from non-U.S.-born residents, the number of renters, people without broadband internet, those near or under the poverty line, and children under five years old.

San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs Executive Director Adrienne Pon told supervisors at a Census hearing in February that a quarter of the city’s population is vulnerable to an undercount, translating to more than $4 billion lost in federal funding over the next decade. According to a California Census study, Los Angeles County, ranked the nation’s hardest to count, is estimated to have missed $650 million in federal funding between 2002 and 2010.

California is eager to prevent funding losses from further undercounts. Last year, its Census office held two dozen gatherings to assess statewide readiness, launch quarterly committees, and consult with tribal governments. It’s in the process of funding 10 regional and 13 statewide organizations, including United Way of the Bay Area and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“We’ve started early and are committing more resources than any other state on a robust outreach and engagement effort to reach all Californians,” said Ditas Katague, director of California Complete Count for Census 2020. “Our collaborative partnerships throughout the state will make a difference in 2020, which may be the most difficult Census count yet for California.”

That job may be made more difficult yet next year. In March 2018, the Trump administration announced it would add a question of citizenship to the 2020 Census, which was last asked in 1950.

A coalition of lawsuits followed, including from California, which called it unconstitutional. By including that question, California argues, fearful immigrants may be significantly less likely to participate, and that will lead to an inaccurate head count and fewer federal funds. The Supreme Court is expected to hear the issue in April, but the Census Bureau director, Steven Dillingham, told NPR on Monday his staff must remain “totally objective” about the question.

In the wake of negative coverage around the citizenship question, campaigns to encourage participation so as to prevent erasure are all the more high-stakes for 2020.

Due to a sizable migration of residents to states with a lower cost of living, California could lose a House seat for the first time in its history. (It currently has 53, considerably more than second-place Texas’ 38.) This will also be the first Census allowing households to fill out the questionnaire online — although last June, a Bureau report identified more than 3,000 security weaknesses in the IT systems.

On Monday, civil rights groups such as Color of Change renewed calls for a fair and accurate count, in a “National Census Day of Action.” 

San Francisco already budgeted $2 million for the 2020 outreach effort, which will ramp up in July. It will also assemble a Complete Count Committee by April, and open an assistance center later this year. And we have a history of success: San Francisco was the only county in California where participation rates didn’t fall in 2010 compared to 2000 despite massive budget cuts — due largely to local funding and grassroots outreach.

The city’s Board of Supervisors is ready to work.

“Given our city’s population growth since 2010 and the racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant rants from the White House, it is imperative that our San Francisco 2020 census count is accurate and gives voice to each of our residents,” said Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer at the Census hearing in February.

If you thought local election campaigns went overboard, just get ready for the 2020 Census.

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