This national decennial census faces two challenges: an unprecedented global pandemic and a tight collection deadline Oct. 5. To speed up the counting process, census takers are using a specially designed app to collect data. However, this proprietary software could create hidden biases in the data and may pose enormous threats to cities, including Berkeley, that are facing the potential for vast undercounts in the 2020 census.
What’s at stake in this census is not only proportionate congressional representation but also trillions of dollars in federal funding for public programs that will impact the Berkeley community for the next 10 years. The financial implications of any mistakes or undercounts in the census are significant.
With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation this year, the goal is to encourage as many individuals as possible to fill out the census online. For those who haven’t responded via the online portal, 500,000 enumerators are going door to door with iPhones to collect information and help people complete questionnaires.
While efficient and convenient, the app appears to be unsuitable for counting Berkeley students, families and workers who reside in our city’s large-scale apartments and condominium complexes. Census takers both in Berkeley and across the country have struggled to reach residents in multifamily and high-rise buildings with limited access. Buildings with locked gates, a security guard presence and managers from homeowner associations or management companies can all impede the efforts of census takers.
Even when enumerators gain access to these types of buildings, neighbors often don’t know enough about one another to act as a proxy and properly complete the questionnaire. If a proxy cannot provide enough detail about a unit, the same address will require repeat visits or communication with additional proxies to collect adequate data.
This methodology and software design will inevitably favor traditional low-density single-family dwellings, where proxy neighbors are more likely to know one another and answer the census questions in detail. As a result, enumerators run the risk of overrepresenting wealthy communities who live in single-family homes and underrepresenting millions of other people across the nation. The hidden bias of this census data, which carries severe implications for our community — especially tenants who are people of color, low-income and in need of services — for at least a decade, must be addressed.
It is essential that elected officials and constituents come together to root out structural bias in the census and demand an equitable count of the population. In the future, the U.S. Census Bureau should reconsider its method of data collection and allow enumerators to have access to modified software, in which abbreviated data on head counts would be sufficient for completing the questionnaire. Another step the Census Bureau could take is to request and use data from residential management companies and homeowners associations that provide sufficient information about residents living in these hard-to-count buildings.
Though a federal judge in California ruled that national counting for the census could continue through Oct. 31, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross officially announced plans to conclude collection Oct. 5. Without an extension, there is still not enough time to obtain a complete and accurate count of the estimated 330 million people in the country, especially during a public health emergency. Given these circumstances, the lack of an extended deadline appears to be a direct attack on democracy.
Everybody who continues to live in Berkeley or lived in Berkeley on April 1 must complete the census. This includes students who would have normally lived in Berkeley if not for shelter-in-place orders and moved back home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, babies born on or before April 1 and non-U.S. citizens, including undocumented residents. All responses are kept confidential.
Currently, Southside is one of the most undercounted census tracts in the entire county. As of Monday, the census tracts adjacent to the UC Berkeley campus have a self-response rate as low as 44.2%, which is significantly lower than other parts of the county reporting above 70%. A census undercount will put Berkeley at risk of losing important federal resources for housing, education, infrastructure and other critical services that long-term residents, families, students and workers all benefit from.
We must act to ensure that the 2020 census findings count all people and do not leave desperate communities behind. Do your part to secure critical funding for our communities by counting yourself in Berkeley today.
Please complete the census today.
Ben Bartlett is an attorney and the District 3 Berkeley City Council member.