Students work to increase census response rates in Berkeley

Census
Flickr/Creative Commons
Census data is used to determine how more than $675 billion is distributed to states and, consequently, how much money local governments and basic needs programs receive, according to campus graduate student Mansi Kathuria, census project director at the UC Berkeley Public Service Center. (Photo by Flickr under CC BY 2.0.)

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With the Sept. 30 census deadline fast approaching, student-led census efforts are using the remaining week to increase response rates throughout Berkeley.

Census data is used to determine how more than $675 billion is distributed to states and, consequently, how much money local governments and basic needs programs receive, according to campus graduate student Mansi Kathuria, census project director at the UC Berkeley Public Service Center. She added that for Berkeley specifically, the census helps fund Federal Pell Grants, which provide financial aid.

“Data from the census is just so integral to the functioning of our democracy,” Kathuria said. “What happens this year impacts our policies, democracy and representation for the next 10 years.”

Kathuria added that the census counts are used to determine electoral college votes and congressional seats. After the census is done, every federal, state and local district is redrawn based on the census data.

The problem, however, is that many of the students who are usually in Berkeley left once the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders went into effect in March, Kathuria said. She added that the official census day, April 1, is used as a reference point for where people should be counted as living.

“COVID-19 changed everything. Students left Berkeley to go back to their hometowns when classes were moved to online, right before the official Census day, April 1,” said Anna Whitney, an intern for UC Berkeley’s Government and Community Relations team, in an email. “This meant that the population of Berkeley dropped dramatically just as the Census effort was fully underway.”

Since students who may have been counted at home make up a large percentage of Berkeley’s population, according to ASUC External Affairs Vice President Derek Imai, areas close to campus are at count rates as low as 43%. The city will not receive sufficient funding and support if counts are not close to 100%, Imai said.

Imai added that a lot of outreach has become remote due to COVID-19 social distancing practices. Many efforts are centered around using social media to spread awareness and encourage people to fill out the census in Berkeley.

These efforts include contests and giveaways in which students can complete tasks such as tagging friends to fill out the census or showing proof they filled out the census to be entered in a raffle for prizes.

“We had to shift our strategy to entirely-online outreach, which made it more difficult to reach students, who were already distracted by managing the changes brought by the pandemic,” Whitney said in an email.

Other efforts have included an ASUC and CalTV video encouraging students to get counted that was featured on official UC Berkeley social media accounts.

Kathuria noted that her team has also been working with professors to share information over Zoom or bCourses. She added that they have reached about 10,000 students through those platforms.

“The three (areas) right around the university have the lowest response rates of anywhere in Berkeley,” Kathuria said. “But in the last six weeks, it’s gone up 2-4%, which is definitely a slight improvement. … We’re just doing everything we can in the last eight days to boost that.”

Contact Maria Young at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maria_myoung.