Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political and social issues. The American Prospect is co-publishing this piece.
If all politics is local, then census participation is hyper-local, particularly in California, which the Census Bureau ranks among the hardest-to-count states in the nation. The obstacles that stand in the way of an accurate census can’t be swept aside on the federal level, nor from the vantage of a state capital. Doubts about the confidentiality of information, for instance, have to be assuaged by people who understand those doubts; fear that any encounter with the government is perilous have to be addressed by people who fight those fears themselves.
And in 2020, those fears will run high in the hardest of the hardest-to-count communities—and not just because Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had wanted to add a series of questions about citizenship to the census form. (The effort failed but may still chill Latino participation.) African Americans have long felt the heavy hand of administrative authority, too. “The huge challenge for us is that people are nervous about giving up their information,” says James Woodson, organizing coordinator at California Calls, an alliance of 31 organizations devoted to increasing political engagement in disadvantaged communities.
“In our message testing, we’ve found that the bigger concern [for African Americans] is privacy and confidentiality. People want to know whatever information they give won’t be used to target them.”
The price for nonparticipation could be high, as communities of color could lose representation in the state legislature or in Congress. Communities of color face unique risks: The Voting Rights Act prohibits drawing congressional-district boundaries that would dilute so-called “majority-minority” districts, but the districts are only protected if the “minority group” — people of color or people who speak a language other than English—represents at least 50 percent of residents. When Census Bureau staff analyzed the results of the 2010 count, they concluded it was the most successful in the country’s history. But it still missed 47,000 Latino children in Los Angeles alone, exacerbating a misallocation of certain federal funds for programs such as Head Start, which hews to the count of children living in poverty.
Yet community fears are, unfortunately, well-founded, says Hector Sanchez, director of finance for the Community Coalition, an alliance member headquartered in South Los Angeles, whose constituents are mostly black or Latino, with many living close to poverty. Census Bureau staff are strictly required to protect confidentiality under Title 13 of the U.S. Code. That law wasn’t enacted until 1954; before that, a pair of researchers revealed in 2007, data from the 1940 census had been exploited to surveil people of Japanese ancestry and send them to internment camps. Many people may not know that tarnished legacy, but for those who do, it makes it hard to “just trust the process,” as Sanchez says—especially in communities for whom such trust has not always paid off.
“You have a criminal justice system that has incarcerated black people in large numbers,” Sanchez adds. “You see now, because of cellphone technology, the constant harassment of the black community. You have years of stories about ways that civil rights have been violated.” All of that “has created this sense of distrust” among African-Americans in his community. “So how do we get them to trust? That’s the work we’re trying to figure out right now.”
“CoCo,” as Sanchez’s group is often called, is housed in a building whose lobby is bathed in soothing light that pours in through tall plate-glass windows and from circular lights that hang from the ceiling, like halos. “The circles are meant to emphasize a sense of inclusiveness and collaboration in decision-making,” Sanchez says. “We’re all about transparency,” he says. To that end CoCo and other organizations are hoping to help black and Latino residents conquer the fear, apathy, suspicions and uncertainty that might dissuade them from participating next April in the 2020 census.
AFRICAN AMERICANS HAVE A LONG HISTORY of being undercounted in the decennial census, dating back to the first one in 1790, after white Northerners imposed the “three-fifths compromise” to enumerate Southern African Americans held in captivity and forced into labor. The rule was meant to constrain the power of the white Southern voting bloc when parceling out seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and votes in the Electoral College. But it later became a metaphor for the systemic dehumanization of black people in the United States. (It wasn’t officially repealed until 1868, with the 14th Amendment.)
More recently, census enumerators have missed African-American residents in the United States because they haven’t been able to reach them. The Census Bureau’s estimate of its own 2010 accuracy, released in 2012, found that slightly more than 2 percent of African-Americans were missed that year, including 6 percent of African American children—a percentage double that of white children. In contrast, the white non-Latino population was over counted by nearly 1 percent.
Researchers expect 2020 will be worse. A recent report by the nonprofit Urban Institute estimates that the undercount of African Americans in the U.S. could rise to nearly four percent. “There’s a lot of overlap with black folks and other hard-to-count communities,” says Woodson, whose organization is coordinating the official census outreach effort to African-Americans through its California Black Census and Redistricting Hub. “There is homelessness, which black people are disproportionately affected by. There are low-income folks. In California, especially, there are black immigrants and refugees, and black Muslims, who, based on this federal landscape, might be less likely to want to fill out a census form.”
There is also the problem of gentrification, Woodson says, which has broken up the kind of cohesive communities that could be mobilized around the census. “We've seen over the last decade a lot of displacement, particularly in traditionally African American hubs of Brooklyn, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles.” As housing costs rise, “Folks have been pushed out to areas where there's not a whole lot of infrastructure to connect with folks.” People might be sleeping on a friend’s couch, or in “grandma’s basement,” and they might not even know the census is happening. They might have no access to the Internet (the Census Bureau is hoping to collect at minimum 55 percent of responses online.) They might be out on the street. “There’s not a lot of room for civic engagement under those circumstances,” Woodson says.
Nor is there much will, says Hector Sanchez. “There’s a certain cynicism that’s been built into our community,” he says. “For decades, people have just felt like their votes don’t count—‘The government is going to do what it wants anyway.’” Which is why, he says, getting counted by census takers is so important. “Somehow, we have to convince them that they matter.”
And matter they do: Communities indisputably lose a certain amount of federal money for each person that doesn’t get counted, but it’s hard to find precise and universally accepted dollar figures for that amount. Andrew Reamer, a professor at Georgetown University and a recognized authority on the cost of census undercounts, estimates that the federal government distributes $1,958 per capita, or close to $77 billion, to California based on census-derived statistics. More than half of that goes to Medicaid and Medicare. Those programs won’t be affected by much, because they both follow a formula that weighs per capita income average against population, and California already gets the minimum amount of funding under that formula. A report by the state Legislative Analysts’ Office confirms Reamer’s findings. The losses will be in the “tens of millions of dollars, not billions of dollars,” the agency’s report reads.
But whatever those losses are, they’re certain to be concentrated in communities of color and in low-income communities with the least political power. “We want to break the numbers down on a county and community level,” Woodson says. “We want people to know that not being counted won’t just affect their own family, but their neighbors’ families, too.”
IN THE CALIFORNIA BUDGET Gavin Newsom signed late last week, an additional $54 million has been earmarked for the 2020 census, adding to nearly $100 million set aside last year. The bulk of it is devoted to outreach. California Counts, the state agency leading that effort, will decide where it goes.
Sanchez hopes the Community Coalition can turn some of that money into a bank of Internet kiosks, where people in South Los Angeles can gather to fill out their online forms. Woodson, whose California Calls is the official leader of community-based outreach to African Americans, last week convened a meeting of more than 30 organizations to brainstorm how best to use their funds among the hardest-to-count black communities who most need their presence in this country affirmed. “We talked a lot about creative places to reach folks,” Woodson says, not just on social media but also “at track meets and barbershops and daycares and churches. Just anywhere folks would be gathered where we could lift our messaging.”
They are not above exploiting community privacy concerns for the benefit of the count. “Part of our message is, ‘You want to respond early, so that you don't have the enumerator coming to your door,’” Woodson says. “Because, again with the privacy issue, if you respond you’re taken off the list of doors to knock on.” Woodson is personally confident that whatever information people divulge, the state of California will make sure the federal government doesn’t get to use it to cause trouble.
“Our attorney general [Xavier Becerra] has been active in resisting some of the things that we've seen on the on the national level,” Woodson says. The state has already developed a data tool that can pass on numbers to the federal government without specific biographical information that might compromise census confidentiality.
“We will be calling on him to step up and protect us,” Woodson says. “The state can play a huge role in reassuring folks.”