How many boba shops can you name within a half-mile radius of UC Berkeley? Just off the top of my head: Feng Cha Teahouse, Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea, Asha Tea House, Happy Lemon, Gong Cha, Plentea, RareTea, Sharetea and the boba shop opening up, ready to enter the market full of boba-craving students. Sure, basic economics can explain why there are more than three boba shops on a one-block stretch of Telegraph Avenue: There is enough demand for new establishments to keep entering the market and somehow still make a profit. But how do these businesses know that Berkeley is the right place to open a boba shop? This goes beyond just taking an introductory economics class and relies heavily on demographic data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Whether explicitly visible to us or not, data from the census directly impacts our lives as students in Alameda County in the same way it does for residents across the United States. According to The New York Times, the census is much more than just a mere headcount and “determines how congressional seats are apportioned, how state and federal dollars are distributed, where businesses choose to ship products, and where they build new stores. To do all that properly, the count needs to be accurate.”
Despite the census’ undeniable impacts, however, college campuses are historically known to be severely undercounted. Based on census data in 2010, Southside was considered one of the ‘Hardest to Count (HTC)” tracts in the nation with a mail-in return rate between 60-65%.
Why does this steep undercount exist? Do students know that they should fill out the census at their college residency instead of their home address? Are international students unaware that they too should fill out the census? Or is the controversial history of the census the culprit?
Census distrust is quite understandable, especially for communities of color and the LGBTQ+ community. The data was abused during World War II to identify communities with high populations of Japanese Americans, resulting in their internment. After September 11, 2001, the Census Bureau provided neighborhood data on Arab Americans to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2002. Based on current, societally outdated constructs of sex and race, nonbinary folks and people of Middle Eastern/North African descent run into issues with self-identification.
The census has, however, evolved tremendously since its inception and has been used to spark societal change. After the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the census has served as an apparatus for ensuring minority representation. Since then, the federal government has embarked on campaigns to combat poverty, improve economic opportunities and deal with a range of problems from housing segregation to employment discrimination. All of these efforts relied on census data for documentation and planning purposes.
Moreover, census undercounting can directly impact public health. The New York Times alleges that according to health experts, “low response rates from any demographic group would undermine the validity of the next decade of health statistics and programs.” Scientists can use data to identify health patterns within certain racial and ethnic groups and to target their interventions toward at-risk communities. For example, San Francisco Hep B Free is an organization targeted to eliminate hepatitis B, which affects one in 12 Asian and Pacific Islanders, that directly operates in San Francisco, which has a high API population.
Generally speaking, census data is used to determine where to build health centers that are specifically tailored to help groups, such as the API community. Health centers such as North East Medical Services, or NEMS, Asian Americans for Community Involvement, or AACI, and Tri-City Health Center are some resources that aid in reflecting one of the needs of the Bay Area API population.
Altogether, I hope that readers of this article are mindful of the sociohistorical context surrounding the census while trying to weigh both its large systemic benefits and potential negative impacts. While the census has been historically misused, it is also important to acknowledge that it does play a crucial role in allocating funding — $10,000 goes to the Bay Area for each person counted in the census.
Filling out the census is not a process that can or should be undertaken blindly. The ASUC Office of the External Affairs Vice President is working diligently on student engagement. The UC Berkeley Office of the Chancellor is looking for volunteers to drive its initiatives leading up to the 2020 census in the spring. Overall, getting involved with the census takes great consideration, given that this one count will affect fiscal policies for the next decade.