(TNS) — No state has wagered as much on the outcome of the 2020 census than California, which had planned to spend as much as $187 million to ensure an accurate count.
That plan was staked — at least in part — on the very thing that is now effectively prohibited: human contact.
Dozens of organizations across the state were planning community events and house-to-house campaigns to reach millions of people in hard-to-count neighborhoods. An army of nonprofit and community groups was supposed to fan out across the state to encourage participation, particularly for the undocumented.
But those plans are being furiously rewritten.
With California under stay-at-home orders and mass gatherings banned, some groups say those conversations have moved online. But census experts are worried it may not be enough to combat the many obstacles facing the count, including lingering concerns about the citizenship question that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even before the pandemic, the 2020 census has been in trouble for some time now because of underfunding and other issues, said William O’Hare, a demographer who has studied past census counts. “Now with this coronavirus on top of it, it has made a bad situation worse,” O’Hare said.
The U.S. Census Bureau said this week that it will begin reopening field offices in June after suspending operations in March as the threat of COVID-19 intensified. The federal agency also pushed its schedule back, ending the self-response period in October instead of July.
The census is used to calculate how to dispense money to programs for health care, food and housing assistance. If the population is undercounted, California could see lower federal funding or, in an extremely low count, less representation in Congress.
Diana Crofts-Pelayo, a spokesperson for California Complete Count, an agency created to oversee the state’s efforts, said organizations are now trying to reach more people online.
“This is something I don’t think any local government, any community organization has necessarily anticipated happening during census time,” Crofts-Pelayo said. “People are trying to see how they can be innovative when it comes to the funding that they have. It doesn’t mean the work stops. I think the work gets pivoted to a different tactic.”
‘High-touch’ Approach To Census
The transition to remote work has been a learning experience, if not frustrating at times, said Cindy Quezada, a senior program officer for Sierra Health Foundation. The organization, which uses a “high-touch” approach to outreach, received more than $2 million to oversee the state’s efforts in Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Kern and Inyo counties.
The lower San Joaquin Valley is filled with rural enclaves and farmworkers — one of the more challenging parts of the state to reach people. Quezada said Sierra Health also raised money to give 60 smaller organizations grants to do the work.
Quezada said phone-banking has been a strategy, although automated robocalls have made it increasingly difficult in recent years. At least one organization held a live discussion on Facebook.
“We have to pivot to remote outreach but still try and keep that meaningful interaction,” said Quezada, who is based in Fresno. “Our whole strategy was really the grassroots approach from the ground and everything revolving around conversation face-to-face.”
Small gatherings held in someone’s living room was one of their go-to strategies. Quezada said one group tried to move the house meeting online but there were too many disruptions and participants said they didn’t have a quiet place to go.
“Sometimes a family shares a house so there literally isn’t a quiet place,” Quezada said. “When it’s in person it’s a different environment; in person, the meetings usually have child care.”
Some experts like O’Hare are skeptical they will get the same type of results.
“California was planning on a lot of community events in libraries and community centers; and a lot of outreach activities that have all of a sudden been negated,” O’Hare said. “Some things are being done, people are moving to digital outreach but I don’t think that will be as effective as the in-person would have been.”
So far, half of the Californians who received an invitation to fill out the census have responded. The Census Bureau is tracking the response rate daily and the rate of growth for California is starting to taper off.
The federal agency said it hoped to get voluntary responses from at least 60 percent of the nation’s households before sending “enumerators” out to knock on doors. That phase, known as the nonresponse follow-up period, was also pushed back and will end in October.
O’Hare said sending enumerators may not work as well in 2020 than it has in the past.
“The dilemma is even when you send the enumerators out, people don’t always respond,” O’Hare said. “Given the situation now where people don’t want strangers coming to their doors, bigger mistrust in government and people worried about the citizenship question — I would be surprised if there isn’t more resistance to responding.”
Tom Wolf, a lawyer and census expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said states like California should simplify the federal government’s role by getting most people to respond on their own.
“It’s absolutely imperative that we make it as small as possible the number of places the bureau has to visit in the summer,” Wolf said. “That would be true in any census year but even more so this year since there are questions about how widely the bureau is going to be able to travel around the country because of the pandemic.”
That still leaves ample room for organizations to step up but it’s still unclear how many of them will.
“We don’t have those face-to-face opportunities anymore but we still have those trusted messengers,” Wolf said.
Christian Arana, policy director of the Latino Community Foundation, said some groups have turned to phone banking and the organization recently rolled out a number of billboards along State Route 99 and throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
“To resist we must exist,” one of them says. “Take the census now!” says another.
“If you think about it, the people that should be on the road right now are the essential workers,” Arana said. “Those essential workers are usually the people that work at grocery stores and farmworkers — the same people who have historically been hard to count.”
The organization would have been canvassing at this point and scrapped a census event planned in the Inland Empire. Still, Arana is hopeful some of their newer methods will sink in or the stay-at-home order is relaxed.
“The key number here is 68 percent. That was the final participation rate in 2010 so we’re almost there,” Arana said. “Given the challenges we’ve faced with the census, if we’re able to hit that mark I would consider that a success.”
©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.