America’s Head Count Begins

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Census 2020 supporters on parade in San Francisco's Chinese new year parade
A Census 2020 banner is marched down a San Francisco street during the Chinese New Year Parade in February. Photo: Yichuan Cao / Sipa USA / AP Images

The federal government is inviting American households to participate in the 2020 census and provide demographic information online, by phone, or through the mail. The decennial head count is critically important because census data determines how many members each state sends to the US House of Representatives, shapes congressional redistricting, and guides the allotment of federal funds to state and local governments.Essential Coverage

The census is required by the US Constitution, and its data are used to plan roads, hospitals, schools, emergency services, and many other public investments. This year’s $2 billion census project is the largest ever undertaken and will involve millions of temporary workers and a large marketing campaign.

However, significant barriers could prevent a fair and accurate census this year — especially in California. Although California has taken many steps to ensure an accurate count, the state “is especially vulnerable to an undercount because of its large immigrant population and other hard-to-reach people,” Judy Lin wrote in CalMatters.

State officials have responded to this challenge with an unprecedented investment in outreach efforts. Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Secretary of State Alex Padilla to chair the California Complete Count Committee. Padilla told the Mercury News the state allocated about $187 million — nearly 95 times its budget for the 2010 census — to conduct public outreach.

Here’s what you need to know about the 2020 US Census and its importance to California:

The Online Census

The 2020 federal census is the first to be conducted primarily online. Between March 12 and March 20, all households will receive letters in the mail inviting them to fill out a census questionnaire at The letters include information about answering questions by phone. will be open to the public through July 31, and the questionnaire is available in 13 languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Japanese.

By the end of April, households that have not completed the census will receive written reminders. Households that have not responded by early May will receive an in-person visit from a census worker. “The federal government has hired thousands of people to follow up with people who don’t respond online, by phone, or mail, and to count homeless people, college students, and other hard-to-reach groups,” Sarah D. Wire reported in the Los Angeles Times. “Federal law actually requires you to respond to the census.”

For most people, completing the census questionnaire will take no more than 10 minutes. It includes basic questions for each person living in the household — for example, name, sex, birthday, and race. The questionnaire does not inquire about citizenship status. The Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question to the census, but the US Supreme Court blocked it last summer after California and other states brought a lawsuit.

Under federal law, the Census Bureau must keep personal data confidential. Identifying information taken during the census cannot be shared with law enforcement, immigration officials, or the courts, Wire reported.

The Stakes for California

California now holds 53 of the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives — far more than any other state. “If the census does a poor job of reaching hard-to-count populations and immigrant communities, it could miss more than 1.6 million [California] residents — and the state could easily lose a seat” or more, warned the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Because census data are the basis for redrawing congressional districts, an accurate count is needed to ensure that communities are represented fairly.

Census data also guides the government’s allocation of $1.5 trillion in federal funds to state and local governments. More than 70 federal programs — including Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — use census data and population counts as part of their funding formulas, according to the League of California Cities.

California receives more than $170 billion in federal funds based on its population, Lin wrote. An undercount would put funding for some programs at risk.

Hard-to-Count Communities

California’s large and diverse population presents major obstacles to getting an accurate census count. About 75% of residents are considered hard to count by experts, and an interactive map by PPIC highlights California’s hard-to-count communities.

The debate over inclusion of the citizenship question on the survey last year stoked confusion and fear in immigrant communities. Although the question was thrown out by the high court, some Californians may still be reluctant to share information with the government. About five million California residents are noncitizens. That’s roughly 13% of the state population, the highest proportion of any state.

California is home to more than 151,000 people experiencing homelessness, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 point-in-time count (PDF). Although the Census Bureau has procedures (PDF) that “count people outdoors, where they receive services, and at other locations where they are known to sleep,” this population is likely to be undercounted. As Tess Thorman and Vicki Hsieh wrote on the PPIC Blog, “People experiencing homelessness can be hard to find — they tend to move around a lot, and at any given time, they might be in a shelter, in a car, outdoors, or couch surfing with family and friends.”

Overcoming Risks

Other barriers could affect the accuracy of the census at the national level. In February, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report highlighting the Census Bureau’s cybersecurity and hiring risks. After the bureau discovered that “its main IT system for collecting online census responses was not able to allow enough users to fill out census forms at the same time ‘without experiencing performance issues,’” bureau officials decided to switch to a backup system with greater capacity, NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang reported. However, the GAO warned that making last-minute fixes without extensive testing could introduce new risks that would be added to “significant cybersecurity challenges.”

The GAO also flagged hiring and partnership risks. A low unemployment rate has made it difficult for the Census Bureau to fill the 2.6 million temporary census jobs, and the bureau is behind in recruiting national and community partners to help the campaign.

The Republican National Committee added to the challenges by sending out misleading mailers labeled “2020 Congressional District Census,” Wire reported in a separate Los Angeles Times article. Although the top of the mailer states that it is “commissioned by the Republican Party,” critics complained that some residents might mistake the mailer for the official census. US Representative Katie Porter (D-Irvine) said she has heard from constituents confused by the mailer. She told Wire she feared people would “toss their actual census envelope because they’ve already filled this one out.”

The spread of the novel coronavirus disease known as COVID-19 could hamper census workers’ efforts, Sarah Holder and Kriston Capps reported for CityLab. Door-to-door visits are essential to reach hard-to-count communities. However, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance intended to slow transmission of the virus by limiting social contact. For census workers, it’s going to be a balancing act.

“Operations for the 2020 Census and our ongoing household surveys have procedures built in that specifically anticipate epidemics and pandemics, and we will continue to work with the relevant authorities to keep those up to date,” said Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham in a statement.

Becerra: Don’t Count Out California

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra played a key role in blocking inclusion of the citizenship question in the census. When the Supreme Court ruled against the question, Becerra said in a statement, “In 2020, with this census, 40 million Californians — young and old, rich and poor, citizen and immigrant — will have a chance to lift their voices together to declare: We’re here, we count, and none of us will be pushed into the shadows.”

California residents should complete the census questionnaire online, by phone, or by mail before July 31. Community groups like the Latino Community Foundation, NALEO Educational Fund, and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights can provide assistance and additional information about the census.

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