Community groups in Southern California are rushing to get the word out, especially in hard-to-count neighborhoods, that the deadline for the census has been moved up a month to Sept. 30.
Local nonprofit organizations, activists and researchers say the earlier deadline is going to exacerbate an undercount triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced U.S. Census Bureau workers in March to suspend door-to-door canvassing as part of the decennial population survey. In the months since, community groups have resorted to virtual meetings, flyers, drive-thru campaigns, emails and texts to encourage residents to participate in the count.
Youth organizer Remigio Ruiz yells into a megaphone to encourage people to complete the census questionnaire at 4th and D streets in Perris on Saturday, August 15, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Youth organizers march to encourage people to complete the census questionnaire at 4th and D streets in Perris on Saturday, August 15, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
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Youth organizers pass out flyers and face masks as they encourage people to complete the census questionnaire at 3rd and D streets in Perris on Saturday, August 15, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
A Youth organizer helps get the word out to encourage people to complete the census questionnaire in Perris on Saturday, August 15, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Youth organizer Mariella Ayala talks and encourages people to complete the census questionnaire in Perris on Saturday, August 15, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Youth organizers pass out flyers and face masks as they encourage people to complete the census questionnaire at 4th and D streets in Perris on Saturday, August 15, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Youth organizers from left Remigio Ruiz and Crystal Hernandez get drivers attention as they pass out flyers and face masks to encourage people to complete the census questionnaire in Perris on Saturday, August 15, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Youth organizer Remigio Ruiz wipes sweat from his face after more than an hour of yelling into a megaphone to encourage people to complete the census questionnaire in Perris on Saturday, August 15, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Not having enough time to complete a door-to-door campaign, especially in vulnerable and underserved communities, is “tragic,” said Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
“This is going to massively and adversely hurt low-income people of color,” Ong said. “It’s really disappointing to see the Census Bureau ending it one month earlier given the setbacks with the pandemic that already put us on track for a flawed census. The one additional month could have at least somewhat closed the gap. But we’ve lost that time now.”
Members of Congress have introduced bills to reverse the early deadline — the census was originally due at the end of October — but they may not be adopted by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Response rates vary
According to an advance copy of a report to be released by the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge next week, inner-city enclaves are having noticeably lower census response rates than suburban enclaves. Both Black and Hispanic neighborhoods have significantly lower response rates than white neighborhoods, and the report says that difference has increased compared to 2010.
As of Aug. 1, the center reports, the estimated median response rates are 69.1% for white communities, 49.7% for Black neighborhoods and 50.1% for Hispanic communities. What is particularly dramatic is the decline for Hispanic neighborhoods, down 12.7 percentage points, which, Ong says, could be attributed to “the stigma and fear associated with the Trump administration’s controversial attempt to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census form,” a move that was eventually blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some cities and communities are, however, doing better than others. The response rate in Ontario, a community of 176,000, of which 70% is Latino, was at 65.7% as of Thursday, Aug. 13, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That puts the city above the California response rate of 65% and the San Bernardino County rate of 61.4% — it’s something D’Andre Lampkin, president and CEO of the Lampkin Foundation and co-chair of the Ontario Complete Count Committee, finds impressive.
“Sixty-five percent in the middle of the COVID pandemic is huge,” he said. “Given the fear from the current administration trying to exclude some people, and now, the shortening of the deadline.”
While Lampkin doesn’t like predictions, he’s hoping Ontario can reach 70% by Sept. 30. To get there, he’s holding a grocery giveaway Aug. 21 at the foundation’s headquarters at 2151 E. Convention Way, in which volunteers will include flyers, potato chip clips, pins and notebooks from the Census Bureau.
Volunteers wearing masks and keeping a distance will explain to participants how to fill out a census form so they don’t have to wait for census workers to come knocking on their doors.
‘Pedal to the metal’
San Bernardino County’s 61.4% census response rate is second-lowest in the region. Los Angeles County currently has a response rate of 60.2%, Riverside County is at 62.3% and Orange County leads the way with 72.2%. Still, there are communities in Orange County that must be reached, advocates say.
This past week, First 5 Orange County held diaper giveaways in the predominantly immigrant neighborhoods around the Delhi Community Center in Santa Ana. The group serves the health, education and wellness needs of underserved children, and hopes its continued efforts will encourage families to count children under age 5 for the census.
It’s an age group that often gets left out for as simple a reason as their parents forget to count them or don’t think they are old enough to be counted, said Heather Stratman, the group’s census consultant. The diapers were distributed by community organizations that already work in those neighborhoods, speak the language and have a level of trust with residents, Stratman said.
“The idea is, if we could meet families where they are with these trusted messengers reaching out to them, they are much more inclined to feel that they can fill it (the census form) out,” she said. “With the shorter deadline, it’s pedal to the metal for us. We need to keep this momentum going so we can get the best possible response rate.”
Trillions on the line
Rep. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, was out knocking on doors Tuesday, Aug. 11, in Pomona, reminding people to fill out their census forms.
An undercount in a low-income community such as Pomona would mean less money in the years ahead for schools and social programs, she said. The risk is greater for lessening the share of block grants and about $1.5 trillion a year from the federal government for public services, including Medicare.
“We see a bigoted side in (the Trump) administration,” Torres said. “They are not interested in counting everyone. This is more about politics for them. It is a blatant attack on the Latino community.”
She and other Democratic members of Congress have not ruled out taking the administration to court in an effort to continue counting, even into 2021, she said.
Stepping up efforts
Census Bureau workers began knocking on doors Monday, Aug. 10, across Southern California with the hope of getting through to those who have not responded to the census questionnaire, said Patricia Ramos, regional spokesperson.
From July 26 to Aug.1, the Census Bureau had 34,466 temporary workers on the payroll in the Los Angeles region, more than many larger metropolitan areas. Enumerators wear masks, obey social distancing rules and carry identification badges, Ramos said. They will continue working right up until the deadline, she said. Nationally, up to 500,000 census takers began fanning out this week hoping to connect with people in person.
In addition, the Census Bureau has stepped up joint efforts with nonprofits and faith-based communities to get the word out. Torres’s office has been coordinating efforts with the United Sikh Mission, for example, and they are planning a drive-thru food giveaway in conjunction with census awareness in September at Chaffey College’s Chino Campus.
A series of challenges
The challenge for local activists, especially those trying to get undocumented individuals and immigrants counted, began when the Trump administration began talking about the citizenship question, said Luz Gallegos, community programs director at Training Occupational Development Educating Communities (TODEC) Legal Center, which serves migrant communities in the Inland Empire and Imperial County.
“In addition, it’s been more difficult getting the word out because communities are on survival mode,” Gallegos said. “They are not thinking about the census, but about putting food on the table, staying healthy and getting health care when they need it. It has been one challenge after another.”
Her organization has multiplied its efforts to reach more people virtually via meetings on the Zoom platform, emails, texting and calling, she said. The city of Perris, where TODEC is based, currently has a census response rate of 61.9%.
“We’re sending mailers, going out to the streets, parading in caravans with signs and music so people continue to get information about the census,” Gallegos said. “We’re really worried we’re going to have an undercount in the undocumented community because of messaging from the federal government. There is the constant fear of being deported.”
Shortening the deadline will hurt their efforts, she added.
“But,” she said, “it’s just one more thing we have to fight.”