UC Berkeley, city efforts target hard-to-count populations in 2020 census

infographic on 2020 census basics
Jazmine Solorzano/Staff

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Updated 10/15/2019: this article has been updated to include more information from U.S. Census Bureau spokesperson Josh Green.

UC Berkeley, city, state and national officials have started planning census outreach efforts and allocating resources toward the 2020 count, seeking to ensure resources for hard-to-count populations.

The census, which is conducted every 10 years in the United States in accordance with the Constitution, is the federal government’s attempt to count every person in the country and to collect data about some of their attributes, including age, race and education level. The results are used to determine federal funding and representation in government, among other things, and can have major implications, according to Diana Crofts-Pelayo, a California census department spokesperson.

In 2020, the census will be online for the first time in history, in addition to the previously offered options of participation by phone or mail. According to U.S. Census Bureau spokesperson Josh Green, the encrypted online option is significantly less expensive for the federal government.

The online census has a limit of a single submission of 99 people per address, according to Green. According to Jane Hood, who serves as the director of civic engagement for the ASUC External Affairs Vice President, or EAVP,  large households also have the option of calling the U.S. Census Bureau and manually reciting their information.

The U.S. Census Bureau will also check for double-counting to an extent, and will combine multiple submissions from a single household if necessary, according to Crofts-Pelayo.

Households should receive a postcard from the U.S. Census Bureau in March, reminding people to fill out the census, according to campus senior Melodie Deisher, who is teaching a DeCal on the census this semester. Deisher added that even those who do not receive a postcard are eligible to fill out the census.

The first date that people can complete the census is March 12, 2020, although the official census day is April 1. The census will officially close after enumerators physically knock on the doors of those who have not filled out the census by June or July, according to Hood.

The final day that an individual can fill out the census through any means is July 31, according to Green.

Every person counts

The census could have broad implications for the state, city and campus.

The census determines the number of congressional seats and electoral college votes each state is allocated. According to the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, California is predicted to lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives or keep its current count of 53 seats with the upcoming census.

In addition, districts are often redrawn after a census occurs, according to campus alumna Krista Mar, who researched the census and hard-to-count populations while studying at the UC Berkeley School of Information. She added that these factors can affect representation and the power that a political party has in a certain area.

“Data is political no matter what,” Mar said. “Either you acknowledge its power and weaponize it, or you get screwed over.”

According to Green, the federal government has to determine reapportionments by April 2021, after which the reapportioned information is distributed to state governments for possible redistricting.

In addition to representation, the census also affects the distribution of federal funds to different communities. Federal programs that provide services to millions of Californians could be affected by an undercount, according to Crofts-Pelayo, including education, health care and transportation.

“An undercount means fewer service for everyone,” said Erin Steffen, the assistant to the Berkeley city manager, in an email. “For every person not counted, our community loses $10,000 over the next 10 years.”

The census is also used by researchers to gather information about different populations. Mar said she uses the census at her job in a local hospital to determine the diversity of patients and staff, compared to the general population of her community. She also uses the data externally to locate the more impoverished areas nearby. Mar added that she thinks the census is the “most important statistics project” in the country.

Campus immigration researcher and sociology professor Irene Bloemraad also cited the accuracy of the census as extremely important to her research. Bloemraad uses census data to identify and understand the problems that different immigrant communities face.

Bloemraad, however, said she was concerned over the apprehension toward the census, especially in immigrant communities, after President Donald Trump made comments last year about using the census as a tool for regulating and identifying undocumented immigrants.

“Now, even though the 2020 Census will not contain a citizenship question, I’m worried that immigrants will refuse to respond to the census,” Bloemraad said in an email. “If that happens, researchers will have a much harder time knowing the size and the needs of immigrant communities. Which will, in turn, make it harder for those who want to help immigrant communities be able to know their needs and figure out where to direct them.”

Deisher and Mar both said identification concerns were unnecessary, as the census is mandated to include differential privacy, which makes people unidentifiable. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is against the law for any federal employee to disclose any census information and that the census has one of the strongest confidentiality guarantees of the federal government.

The government’s role

This year, California is allocating $187.2 million toward census outreach and communication efforts, according to Crofts-Pelayo, who added that no other states have funding allocations to this magnitude.

The $187.2 million — $85 million of which is going towards outreach — is being allocated by selected community organizations, including United Way Bay Area, a community-based organization tasked with allocating about $2.8 million to different efforts in Berkeley and surrounding areas.

“Trusted messengers really resonate with these communities,” Crofts-Pelayo said. “We like to say ‘Californians know Californians best,’ but really, local groups know their communities even better than we do.”

This year, California’s efforts are focused on hard-to-count populations, which are defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as populations who are historically underrepresented or less likely to self-report. The California Census Bureau identifies 14 specific hard-to-count population demographics, including children under five-years-old, foreign-born people and those without access to broadband or internet.

In order to combat the issue of hard-to-count populations, Berkeley has allocated up to $125,000 to hire a census coordinator, who will focus on outreach and education. The coordinator will also establish physical locations where community members can complete the census, according to Steffen.

The city allocated $190,000 in June to be used for staff support for census outreach in the city clerk’s office, according to Stefan Elgstrand, the spokesperson for Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s office.

“We want to keep what we have at home,” Crofts-Pelayo said. “If you are seeing states like Texas that are definitely doing a lot less than we are, I think that that will show in whether they get a complete and accurate count.”

According to Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who also sits on a countywide census outreach committee, the Downtown and Southside areas of Berkeley have the highest hard-to-count indexes in the city. Homeless residents, renters and students are especially susceptible to undercounting.

“Immense amounts of funding for programs that our residents need are at stake,” Robinson said in an email. “It’s crucial that we come as close to a complete count in 2020 as possible.”

According to Steffen, the census results will also be used by the city’s citizens redistricting commission to update City Council district boundaries once the count is complete.

Counting on campus 

Students are not explicitly categorized as hard-to-count, although they fit many other categories of historically undercounted populations, such as renters, the homeless and apartment-dwellers, according to Hood.

To help combat student undercounting, the EAVP’s office is working on several events and initiatives for next year to encourage students to fill out the census, including an event for Census Day that will include food, music and potentially a bouncy house, according to Hood.

“UC Berkeley students who live on campus, by campus and beyond are historically undercounted,” Hood said. “One of the reasons why we as students are getting involved is because it is really important that students take the census here.”

To help fund these efforts, the EAVP’s office applied for several grants, including one from United Way Bay Area, which awarded the office $7,000.

Hood added that the EAVP’s office will be creating two new stipended census outreach positions for the campus next semester, one of which will be filled internally while the other will be filled by a member of a hard-to-count community.

“Were excited to be able to compensate people for the good work that they do,” Hood said.

According to Hood, students are often undercounted because they are missed by the in-person enumerators. Because of this, Hood said the EAVP’s office will focus on pushing census outreach in April and May to ensure that students are counted before summer break begins.

Green said in-person enumeration begins at the beginning of May, and that students who are not caught by in-person enumeration are still able to report their location on April 1 through online census or by phone. In-person enumeration will begin early on campus, Green added, starting in early April.

The EAVP’s office intends to make 1,500 new unique census impressions and have 500 people complete questionnaires through outreach events, according to Hood.

“Students, especially those living in group living arrangements, can be planning already to be prepared for the census and ensure every member of their house is counted,” Robinson said in an email.

Green from the U.S. Census Bureau added that his department will be rolling out a program called group quarters, which will work to ensure that college students living in dorms are counted. The group quarters would partner with campus housing organizations to achieve this goal.

Campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff said the campus is already working with the Residential and Student Service Programs on census enumeration efforts.

“The Census is an integral part of our legal system and federal funding allocation is determined by it,” Deisher said in an email. “I want people to feel informed about what they’re doing in completing the Census and the impact it can have on their communities.”

Contact Kate Finman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.

A previous version of this article implied that redistricting is determined by the federal government by April 2021. In fact, the federal government has to determine reapportionments by April 2021, after which the reapportionment information is sent to state governments.

A previous version of this article implied that in-person enumerators begin knocking on doors in June or July. In fact, in-person enumeration begins in May.

A previous version of this article stated that the online census form had a single submission limit of 10 people per address. In fact, the online census form allows for up to 99 people per address.