Coronavirus Adds Major Hurdle to California's Census Efforts

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Angie Sanchez, the community engagement manager at La Luz Center in Sonoma, pulls out an ‘El Millennial’ card from the Censoteria deck she uses as part of her community outreach efforts. (Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters)

Update: The U.S. Census Bureau on Wednesday announced it will postpone all field operations that had been scheduled to start this month. That includes the count of the homeless population and of people living in “group quarters" (college students on some campuses and residents of places like nursing homes, group homes and prisons). The Census Bureau will also conduct online, paid trainings for its recently hired temporary employees, and still hopes to begin household door-knocking operations in late May.

Tasked with motivating people in her Sonoma County community to fill out their census forms, Angie Sanchez quickly realized that the standard outreach presentations and handouts she'd be given just wouldn’t cut it.

Instead, the community organizer reimagined Lotería, a Bingo-like game that’s a staple in many Latino households.

Sanchez's version, Censotería, received more than 300 Instagram likes and piqued the interest of census officials in Alabama, Illinois and Texas. La Luz, the civic participation group that Sanchez works for, partnered with the Latino Community Foundation, printing out about 500 copies and distributing them throughout the community. They even created a free downloadable game.

Now, for all of Sanchez’s creativity, it’s unclear whether the game, which is part of the state’s $187 million census outreach effort, will move the needle even slightly. As the coronavirus pandemic upends every aspect of life in California, it is far from clear what, if anything, will help push the state's millions of hard-to-reach residents to complete their census questionnaires.

In the coming days, residents across the nation will receive mailers (or have already) asking them to respond online — or by phone or mail — to nine basic questions about their household as part of a decennial federal population count. But getting an accurate count this year could prove extremely challenging, particularly in California. The state faces powerful headwinds that are expected to depress census turnout, not only from the mounting threat of the coronavirus, but also from widespread distrust sowed by the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies, including a failed attempt to include a citizenship question on the form.

For California, where the population growth rate is at its slowest in over a century, the stakes have never been higher: A significant undercount could jeopardize one of the state's 53 congressional seats, along with billions of dollars in federal funding.

Just as census notices began landing in people’s mailboxes, Gov. Gavin Newsom clamped down on public gatherings in an effort to mitigate the coronavirus outbreak, disrupting months of planned outreach events and door-to-door appeals.

“It’s been a challenge because we have to take precautions on how we conduct outreach,” said Melissa Vergara from the San Mateo County Office of Community Affairs.

And allies have unintentionally sent mixed signals. Some immigrant rights activists, who spent last year cautioning immigrants to ignore federal agents knocking on their door during nationwide raids, are now encouraging people to voluntarily give information to the Census Bureau, which is part of the federal government.

Millions of Californians are now at risk of being undercounted. This "hard-to-count" population includes homeless people, young men and those living in transitory or nonstandard housing situations. It also comprises many young children, who are often not recorded in household responses.

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Moreover, response rates often come down to race and ethnicity. California is a majority minority state, with nearly 11 million immigrants and close to 40% of the population who identify as Latino or Hispanic. That has led to a growing concern among organizers and census officials that government distrust will significantly reduce the statewide response rate, even among residents with legal status. It has been particularly difficult this year to assure people that census information will be kept private and only used for statistical analysis, some organizers say.

“I think historically we’ve thought about non-citizens or unauthorized immigrants as particularly hard to count,” said Sarah Bohn of the Public Policy Institute of California. “But I think there is concern about whether this environment we’re in right now with regard to immigrants is going to dissuade even legal immigrants from responding — just because of fear or distrust of the government.”

California residents benefit from dozens of federal programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, affordable housing and funding for roads, school lunches, early childhood education and foster care. The amount of funding allotted for most of those programs is largely determined by population size.

Andrew Reamer, a research professor at George Washington University, estimates California receives $172 billion in federal money based on its population.

“If someone wants to harm the local economy, a great way to do it is to not fill out the census,” he said.


That’s why California has allocated almost $190 million — more than any other state — for the census, with the majority being used for community outreach programs like Sanchez’s Censotería game. Mercury Public Affairs LLC also won a $46 million contract to lead a statewide media campaign.

“It’s really critical to get it right,” said Bohn.

Vergara of San Mateo County said the county has changed its strategy in response to the coronavirus outbreak, noting that her outreach workers started seeing low turnout at census events even before Newsom's executive order.

County and state organizers are now pivoting to social media outreach and ramping up a digital ambassador program — a group of preselected online influencers including actor Danny Trejo, mixed martial artist Urijah Faber and Sacramento Kings basketball player Harrison Barnes, in addition to a number of well-known community activists.

“We are encountering the first mainly digital census and we are also encountering groups that have a general fear of the government and of the federal government,” said Diana Crofts-Pelayo, spokeswoman for California Complete Count. “So for us, this is why we have really created this comprehensive outreach and communications approach to really address some of these unprecedented challenges.”

One digital ambassador, Rain Valdez, an actress, filmmaker and transgender community advocate, said she got involved in the hopes of increasing participation within the LGBTQ community.

“I knew that with our history as trans people, there’s a tendency to erase us from the count,” she said.

Still, California’s housing crisis and access to reliable broadband connections remain obstacles. While 74% of all households had broadband internet in 2017, only 67% of African Americans and 66% of Latino households were connected at home, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

“Those are some of the groups that I’m most concerned about getting their responses,” Bohn said.

KQED's Matthew Green contributed reporting. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.