The metaphorical dumpster fire that is 2020 also happens to be a census year.
As a result, the U.S. Census Bureau has dispatched thousands of employees around the country to begin the second half of its once-in-a-decade count.
Armed with a phone app and trained to follow Covid-19 health guidelines, the census takers are now visiting households which have not filled in questionnaires online, by phone or by letter, according to Census Bureau spokesman Joshua Green.
When they visit a home, census takers are trained to ask questions from a safe distance, ultimately inputting the information into a phone app.
Census data is used to redraw congressional districts and calculate the amount of funding local government agencies receive from numerous federal and state programs.
The data, which is meant to record every single person in the country regardless of status, is also used by scholars to study and understand societal changes.
To avoid having a census taker to come to your house, simply respond to the survey online, by mail or by phone, Green said.
In addition to being interrupted earlier in the year by the pandemic response, the census has recently taken on a new level of controversy.
This week, Los Angeles and San Jose joined other cities in a lawsuit against the Trump administration in response to its decision to advance the census data collection deadline from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30. Others have voiced concern that fears among vulnerable communities that their information will be sent on to law enforcement agencies, including ICE, could dampen response rates in some communities.
In a recent interview, Green dismissed both concerns. The Census Bureau is barred under federal law from sharing its data with law enforcement, Green said.
As for the limited timeline, the Census Bureau’s deadline to submit completed data to President Donald Trump remains Dec. 31, and moving the date forward will allow the agency more time to prepare questionnaire responses, Green explained.
Despite all of the hurdles 2020 has presented, beginning with the pandemic and now continuing with widespread wildfires, it appears that California and several Bay Area counties are on track to meet or surpass the 2010 self-reporting rates, according to the Census Bureau’s online self-reporting map.
As of today, Santa Clara County had already surpassed the statewide rate—75 percent compared to nearly 67 percent, respectively—and was about as responsive as in 2010.
Several parts of the South Bay have been lagging, however.
Pockets of largely immigrant and Latino communities saw much lower rates of responsiveness, with only half of some census tracts in Alviso and some of downtown and East Side in San Jose self-reporting.
As a result, the county has recruited about 100 canvassers to started knocking on doors in harder-to-reach neighborhoods—especially those in immigrant communities.
Deputy County Executive David Campos said the Census Bureau considers the South Bay the ninth-hardest area nationwide. That’s partly because of the sizable population of young children and immigrants and partly due to the high rates of overcrowded housing.
“Immigrant communities in our area, especially those in the cities of San Jose and Gilroy, have historically been undercounted and now is more important than ever that we have full representation,” Campos said. “This is critical to receiving the federal funds that we need to keep running safety net programs for all residents, regardless of citizenship status. Exercise your right and be counted.”
Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez implored residents to open their doors when the canvassers come knocking in the coming days and weeks.
“With an ongoing pandemic and wildfires, we need every person to be counted in the census, so we can make sure we are receiving the resources we need to keep our residents safe,” she said in a prepared statement. “We also know many people are feeling uncertainty and anxious about the census. Our community outreach workers will answer all questions and connect our residents to the resources they need.”
To overcome those hurdles, the county has invested $6 million in outreach from its general fund—only some of which was reimbursed by the state.
Campos was joined today at a press conference on the steps of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in East Side by Office of Immigrant Relations Manager Zelica Rodriguez and county census manager Nick Kuwada, who talked about how the effort to ensure a complete count began in earnest more than three years ago.
“For this final phase, this final push, we are trying to get as many people to respond themselves in these last 36 days of the project,” Kuwada said.
Working Partnerships USA Deputy Executive Director Maria Noel Fernandez made an appearance as well, explaining the role her nonprofit is taking in reaching immigrant households as part of a multi-million contract it struck with the county.
Today we will answer questions about the latest Census 2020 efforts, demonstrate how to recognize canvassers, talk about the resources they will provide, and explain why it’s important for residents to be counted in the Census. Santa Clara County - Office of the Census Office of Immigrant Relations
Posted by County of Santa Clara, California on Thursday, August 27, 2020
Fernandez said she has a simple ask for the community: “Open. Your. Door. Engage with us. Ask us any question you have and get your census done.”
The challenges highlighted today by local officials today extend far beyond the South Bay.
Last week, the Associated Press reported on a watchdog agency’s report that raises further concerns about the bureau’s ability to complete an accurate, full count due to a shortage of census takers. Bureau officials have rejected those fears as well.
What of the ongoing wildfires and resulting evacuation orders in parts of the state?
“Those who are concerned about their community being undercounted because of the fires should get out the message that no matter where a family or individual happens to be sleeping at any given time,” Green said. “Anyone can self-respond to the census.”
He said people should respond based on where they lived before the fires displaced them.