‘Not a compatible environment’: Census efforts disrupted by COVID-19

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Efforts to spread the 2020 census count have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which could impact federal funding and government representation.

The census, which is available online this year for the first time, is conducted once every 10 years and determines federal funding for countless statewide and local programs, as well as apportionment for the U.S. House of Representatives. This year, the U.S. Census Bureau has postponed most operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and local efforts to spread the census have been negatively affected.

Ongoing outreach efforts and coordination between the Census Bureau and higher education, however, may mitigate these negative impacts.

Subsidized housing, road maintenance, food stamps and health care are all impacted by the census, according to Jaime Clark, the redistricting data and access coordinator for the statewide database.

About 60% of Alameda County’s total funding is determined by census data, Clark added. According to Esther Gulli, UC Berkeley executive director of government and community relations, for every person not counted, Alameda County loses $1,000 per year in funding.

“The biggest issue about the census is that it’s a 10 year problem,” Gulli said in an email. “It’s not just $1,000 missing for someone not filling out the census, it’s really $10,000.”

Census data also determines the amount of federal funds that go to public universities, as well as services that aid college students such as public transit, financial aid and mental health services, said Melodie Deisher, a UC Berkeley alumna who taught a class on the U.S. Census Bureau when she was a student.

Many underprivileged communities have historically been undercounted in censuses, which has led to the underfunding of programs for communities of color, recent immigrants, lower income and less educated communities, Deisher added. According to Clark, young mobile populations such as students have also often been undercounted by the census.

“COVID-19 has made hard-to-count communities even harder, students especially,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson in an email.

Campus efforts have been “tremendously impacted” by COVID-19, according to Gulli. One major issue has been the confusion around the question, “Where were you living on April 1?” Many students who left their residences near campus before April 1 due to the switch to online instruction have answered using non-Berkeley addresses.

In order for the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley to receive appropriate funding, however, students need to be recorded with their Berkeley addresses.

The cancellation of all in-person campus events planned to spread the census has also had a negative impact on publicity, said campus rising junior Naomi Garcia, former census director for the ASUC external affairs vice president and current ASUC senator.

The U.S. Census Bureau plans to resume in-person efforts to spread the census in the fall, with appropriate safety precautions, according to Census Bureau spokesperson and former Daily Californian columnist Joshua Green. The Census Bureau will also be working with colleges and universities to account for the issue of students counted in the wrong place.

The bureau began reaching out to college and university officials June 16, requesting roster information for off-campus students, including their names, dates of birth and addresses, according to a report from the bureau. This information will be used to ensure college students are counted in the right place, the report states.

Duplicate responses will be removed from the census and students who previously didn’t respond will be counted, according to the report.

“A pandemic is not a compatible environment for carrying out the decennial census,” Robinson said in the email. “Ensuring a complete count will require more time and new resources, lest communities from coast to coast be deprived of funding they will desperately need, especially in the wake of this national emergency.”

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.