Why an accurate census is important for California Graphic via Desirée Tapia for Courier

The Latino Community Foundation in San Francisco is one of several groups in the state working to help connect the dots for people on how participation affects their day-to-day lives.

This is part one of a five-part series exploring how organizations, advocates, and activists across the country are working to ensure an accurate count in the 2020 Census. Read about the significance of the 2020 U.S. Census here.

Later this week, Americans across the country will begin receiving invitations to participate in the 2020 United States Census.

The census, which takes place once every decade, aims to produce an accurate headcount of every single person living in the 50 states, Washington D.C., and five U.S. territories. Census results determine billions of dollars in federal funding, how many seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives, and influence how congressional and state legislative districts are drawn.

Getting an accurate count of the population is always a challenge: The 2010 Census missed 1.5 million Black and Latino Americans, and one million children. But the lead-up to the 2020 Census has been particularly fraught. For instance, the Trump administration tried (and failed) to add a citizenship question to the census, a move that immigration advocates say was designed to cause fear and discourage Latinos and other immigrants from participating. 

Multiple studies found that such a citizenship question would pose a major barrier to participation among immigrants, especially Latinos, who worried the question would be used to identify undocumented immigrants in their families. 

The citizenship question will not be on the 2020 census—it was blocked by the Supreme Court—but advocates are concerned the damage may already be done. This fear is particularly present in California, which is home to 15 million Latinos, or one out of every four Latinos in the United States.

“There is no accurate count of California if there is no accurate count of Latinos,” said Christian Arana, policy director for the Latino Community Foundation, a San Francisco-based philanthropic organization focused on investing in Latino communities across California. It is one of several groups in the state working to make sure every Latino in California is counted in the census. 

“Every single person that is counted helps make sure that California gets its fair share of political representation and federal resources for all the programs that we all use,” Arana told COURIER.

California received more than $115 billion a year in federal funds tied to the 2010 Census, which went toward critical programs including Medi-Cal (the state’s Medicaid program), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, and housing vouchers for low-income residents.

“These are programs that are heavily used by Latino communities, so if we’re a community that already is under resourced to begin with, not being counted in the next census is just going to make things even worse,” Arana said. 

Nearly one in four California Latinos lived in poverty in 2017, and 52% of Latino households struggle to pay for basic expenses like food, housing, and electricity. Participating in the census can play a critical role in addressing some of those issues, Arana said.

“There is no accurate count of California if there is no accurate count of Latinos.”

Despite the importance of the census, nonprofit and advocacy groups are worried about an undercount in California. More than 70% of the state’s population belongs to one of the groups that are historically most likely to be undercounted by the census, and researchers believe as many as 1.3 million California residents could be missed in this year’s count.

The state itself estimates it has 11 million hard-to-count residents and is spending $187 million to prevent a repeat of the 1990 Census, when the state was undercounted by 2.7% and lost $2 billion in federal funds over 10 years as a result. 

While Arana and his peers know the census is important, many average citizens, Latino or otherwise, don’t. That’s where the Latino Community Foundation comes in. The foundation is trying to help connect the dots for people on how participation affects their day-to-day lives.

For example, Arana explained, not filling out the form “means there may be one less teacher, one less counselor, or one less school administrator” at public schools. California currently has a 622-to-1 counselor-to-student ratio, far higher than the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselors Association. This lack of counselors disproportionately harms Latinos, who make up more than half of all public school students in California.

“That’s not acceptable and if we can manage to get 5,000 more Latinos counted, that might be the difference in getting two or three more counselors per particular community,” Arana said. “When you put it in terms like that, people start to understand the importance of participating.”

An undercount also stands to hurt Latinos with regards to how their interests and needs are represented in Washington, D.C. California is already expected to lose one of its 53 congressional seats as a consequence of the state’s slowing population growth, but an undercount may cause the state to lose a second seat of representation in the House. 

Arana offered concrete examples of what that loss could mean for Latinos. “If you look at the big bills we’re going to vote on in the next 10 years, it’s going to be immigration reform; it’s going to be gun control; it’s also going to be the Green New Deal. And for a community, especially here in California, that has experienced these issues on a very personal level, at the very minimum we deserve someone to advocate for us and vote on these bills in Congress.”

Yet, despite these very real consequences, many Latinos remain nervous to provide the government with any of their personal information. “You still find Latinos that still think the citizenship question is on the census, so naturally the question that comes up out of that is, ‘Is my information really protected?’” Arana said. 

In fact, a recent survey from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found a majority of Americans surveyed (56%) believe the citizenship question is on the census, while only 17% said it was not on the census, and 25% are unsure. 

In order to combat the residual fear from the proposed citizenship question, the Latino Community Foundation has worked with trusted, local community messengers to deliver factual information and provide reassurance. 

“We’re working with community health clinics across the state,” Arana said. “We know Latinos visit the local clinic … and if the nurse or the doctor can also be the messenger to say, ‘Hey, it’s OK to fill this out, your information is protected and secure,’ that makes a difference. We want to be able to work in those places to help carry the message across.”

As part of its Census outreach efforts, the Latino Community Foundation has also awarded 19 grants totaling $150,000 to Latino-led, youth-serving organizations. These groups are doing door-to-door canvassing, helping individuals fill out their census forms, conducting outreach via social media, and phone banking to remind residents about their census. 

In the coming weeks, the foundation also plans to erect billboards along Route 99 in the historically undercounted, heavily Latino Central Valley of California. These billboards will promote “very positive community-driven messages around participating in the census,” Arana said. 

The foundation has also tried to reach residents in more innovative ways. They partnered with La Luz, a Sonoma County-based nonprofit, to create an educational game called “Censoteria.” The bilingual game is based on the traditional Mexican bingo game “Lotería,” which is often played in Latino communities during the holiday season, and helps promote the significance of getting counted. Arana said the organization has gotten requests for the game from all over the country. 

Still, the fear persists. Even though the Census Bureau is required by law to protect all personally identifiable information for at least 72 years, that means little to communities that have repeatedly been marginalized by the federal government. 

“Given the politics of today, there’s this incredible amount of fear,” Arana said. That’s why he and his colleagues have also launched a new campaign, called “To resist we must exist.”

“We’re living in a time where the greatest act of resistance might actually just be stating our existence on the census form. This has actually become a generational opportunity to say ‘We’re going to fight back,’ that this is in fact our constitutional right,” he said. “Undocumented immigrants also pay taxes, and there’s nothing more unconstitutional than taking the taxpayer money of undocumented immigrants and not giving them the political representation that they deserve.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that California received $115 billion a year in federal funds due to the 2010 Census.