Census Incentivizes Participation

May 1, 2020

With billions of dollars in federal spending and a congressional seat at stake, the 2020 U.S. census is causing California to count some of its residents twice. 

California has set aside $187 million—the most money of any state–to ensure high participation rates in the census. 

Dr. Kristina Victor, a political science professor and California politics expert, said that participation rates for the census are changing.

“The number of people (nationwide) who have said they are going to fill out the census is lower than past census years,” said Victor.

Part of the state spending is going toward a mini-census known as California Neighborhoods Count. Canvassers will go door-to-door at about 20,000 homes in areas with low census participation. 

That’s just a sliver of the state’s 13 million households, but the effort to seek out hidden homes and residents who are leery of providing personal information to federal officials is part of a larger campaign to ensure that nobody is missed. 

Census Day is officially April 1, but the census officials will follow up with households who do not respond. With a large population of immigrants and other hard to count groups, officials are concerned about a population undercount–and the significant consequences that it will have.

“It takes a lot of staffing to be able to reach hard to reach populations, if the census is not well funded,” said Victor. “Without an accurate count some areas will be overrepresented and some will be underrepresented.”


What’s at Stake

Federal funds make up more than a third of government spending in the state, and about 80 percent of those funds are tied to the census, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The federal government provides a budget for the state based off of its population. With a population of approximately 40 million people, California receives one of the largest amounts of federal funding. The more than $100 billion in federal money the state receives goes for services like public safety, housing, health and human services, education, transportation and environmental protection.

Wesley Hussey, a professor of politics at Sacramento State, said that an accurate count is vital to California. 

“Much of our federal funding is calculated by population formulas,” said Hussey. “The more people counted in California, the more federal funding state and local governments will receive.”

For each person not counted in the census, California will lose an estimated $1,000 multiplied by a 10-year period.

In addition to federal funding, with an inaccurate count of residents, California could lose a member of the House of Representatives for the first time. Currently, California has 53 House seats which is said to drop to 52 if the population size drops.

“California’s population growth has slowed and we are right on the edge of losing a House seat since other states are growing quicker,” said Hussey.

Losing a House seat will also impact the Electoral College and the swing of Democratic and Republican states.


Question Controversy

The U.S. Constitution mandates that every decade a new census is carried out in part to ensure that each state receives its fair share of U.S. Representatives. 

But immigrant advocates say that a question about citizenship status that the Trump administration tried to add to the form might have resulted in missing millions of households. Undercounting areas that traditionally lean Democratic would potentially result in a swing to a Republican-dominated map.

“Adding the question removes the purpose of the census and instills fear throughout the nation,” said senior Miri Leaderman. “A census count shouldn’t be meant to penalize people, but benefit them and their communities.”

The question was withdrawn from the census following a Supreme Court decision last summer, but many advocates still worry that fears about confidentiality could reduce participation in the census.  

“California has a large number of non-citizens, many of them unauthorized to be here,” said Hussey. “[They] might be nervous talking with government officials, even if they are not asked a question about citizenship.”

Even without the question, a study from the Urban Institute revealed that over four million people (primarily minorities) risk not being counted in the upcoming census. Pew Research Center estimated over 2.2 million undocumented immigrants live in California alone. In a state where the budget is over $18 billion, the stakes are high.

California faces a significant challenge because 75 percent of residents are considered “hard to count,”  which means that historically they have been undercounted in the census. People of color, immigrants, children and rural residents are part of the hard to count demographic. 

Last census, over one million children five and under were left uncounted in the last census according to a 2019 study by the Urban Institute. This could lead to a potentially inaccurate measurement of how to spend federal funds for education, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program for the next 10 years.


Spread the Word

The Census has turned to social media to help gain more responses and to spread awareness about the opportunities at stake. For the first time, participants may fill out the census either online or by phone. New customizable digital activation badges can be shared through all social media channels to show support of the nation’s census. Throughout the weekend of May 1-3 2020, the census will reward those to post about the census using the tags #2020Census and #ShapeYourFuture. To participate, go to the 2020 census website and create your own graphic, meme, video, etc to post through Instagram stories, Facebook, or Twitter. Additionally, those who participate in the Census may also enter a video prize challenge with awards up to $50,000. With the spread of COVID-19, participating in the online survey is crucial in reducing the number of census workers going door to door to ask for information. Participating will ensure an accurate count of people that will affect funding for hospitals, health care clinics, and emergency services. As of now, the national response rate is at 55.6 percent with a response rate of 56.8 percent in California. 


Not Just Politics

A detailed measure will let the nation see its demographic changes and composition as well as how to spend government money.

Census enumerator Kenny Bender is in charge of a quality-control operation to ensure that there is no undercount in the census. He says that understanding the nation’s demographics are important for funding in the community.

 “It’s important to know how many people of certain ages there are,” said census counter Kenny Bender. “It’s important to know how many children are living in an area for school district funding, for example.

In March 2020, every household will receive a census questionnaire through the mail. Other ways to respond include through filling out an online questionnaire, through a phone call by calling the Census Bureau, or a local census taker will help those who don’t respond. 

The census will include questions about a household, their age, their sex and their race. However, the census will not ask for a Social Security number or one’s political preference.

All responses must be submitted by April 2017 according to the U.S Census Bureau.

Some are worried about the upcoming questions on the census.

“As of now, there is no citizenship question on the official 2020 census, but that doesn’t mean that people know or trust the government with their information,” said Victor.

The responses cannot be used by immigration or federal authorities.

The responses are protected by law and are used for statistics on the population. All census workers are sworn under oath to protect personal information and risk $25,000 in fines and four years in prison if they fail to do so.

“People moving or not being accurately counted won’t just affect funding, but more long term problems like politics,” said senior Eric Osecheck. “Having the census is important to maintain a fair balance throughout the nation.”


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