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San Mateo – California’s #1 Census Success Story

San Mateo County has achieved the highest census self-response rate in California by working with local organizations that know their communities intimately and by targeting messages to them.

Those efforts by trusted, countywide, “on-the-ground” messengers were funded by more than $1.3 million from state and county monies, officials said during a June 30 conference call hosted by Ethnic Media Services.

San Mateo County has reached a 72.8% self-response in the 2020 census, higher than the state’s 62.9% average and the nation´s 61.8%. 

This means that almost three out of four county residents already have filled out the population questionnaire, well ahead of the start of door-to-door visits by census enumerators, which are slated to start in mid-July for some U.S. locations and in August for the rest of the nation. 

San Mateo County, located in the Bay Area on the San Francisco Peninsula between the cities of San Francisco and Palo Alto, is composed of dissimilar communities, and the high self-response number varies greatly. Some cities in the county, like Pescadero and East Palo Alto, are way behind in the count, according to local groups. 

Megan Gosh, census management analyst of the San Mateo County Office of Community Affairs, said the county began working on the project to boost census responses back in January 2018.

“We had plenty of challenges: 13 of 20 cities in San Mateo have a combination of hard-to-count census tracks, as well as unincorporated areas all over the county,” she said. 

Hard-to-count groups include renters, noncitizen residents with limited English proficiency and children under 5 years old, she added. California itself is a hard-to-count state. 

The county’s lack of affordable housing means many addresses are not known to the Census Bureau because they are tied to “nontraditional” housing units, such as converted garages and recreational vehicles. In other cases, people living in rural areas would not get the letters or questionnaires because the bureau will not deliver them to post office boxes, which most rural residents rely on. 

“We worked with city planners and local organizations to canvass areas with those nontraditional units and add their addresses to the master list of the census,” Gosh said. 

That county project was able to add 2,000 addresses to the census master files. Using a conservative two persons per household, those additions would have resulted in $4 million per year for the county because population counts are tied to distribution of federal and state resources. They also are used to create electoral districts that are meant to ensure political representation of all communities. Undercounts tend to shortchange that representation. 

Gosh and other county and community leaders described the more than two-year effort to get up-close, personal knowledge of those communities and what makes them tick,  sometimes having to correct course and tailor messages to convince residents to participate in the census.   

“For example, we received word that Daly City renters were hesitant to take the census due to lack of trust in sharing their information,” explained Melissa Vergara, a census specialist with San Mateo County. “So we created a targeted door hanger that spoke specifically about confidentiality laws for the census.” 

Other areas are receiving “hyper-targeted” messages through social media campaigns and internet ads by zip code, videos and bus shelter billboards. Also helping was outreach through faith congregations and in different languages, depending on local ethnic composition.

Creativity and flexibility are key components of the strategies local organizations have used. Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente de la Costa Sur in Pescadero, said her community was seriously undercounted in the 2010 census, and “not one platform works by itself” in reaching everyone. 

“The 2010 census counted 2,019 residents in our community, but we knew we served at least 1,600 individuals, so our estimate is that we had between 5,000 and 6,000 residents, most of whom had been missed,” Mancera said. She estimates that only about 33% of the community was counted in 2010. So far this year, Pescadero’s response rate is 46.1%.  “And it was very hard to get there,” she adds. 

Many immigrant residents have trust issues because of their experience in their home countries, Mancera says. But the organization has used its relationship with those communities and families to get them to participate in the census. 

“We distribute help to about 200 households every Thursday, urging them to use phones to respond to the census,” she explained. “We hired one person to call about 250 families that had received school supplies from us last year, so we could assist them in answering the census over the phone. There is also a lot of informal communication going on.” 

An example of how a motivated community working with a trusted local organization can surpass expectations also occurred in Pacifica, a city where the self-response rate has been higher than that of neighboring, more affluent San Carlos. 

“We leverage the trust they have in us,” said Anita Rees, executive director of Pacifica Resource Center. “Our organization has been serving the area for 45 years. This is a passionate community, often divided on issues, but the census has become common ground. For us, the message that the census is their voice being heard has worked, and also the community is competitive — they wanted to beat out San Carlos.” 

Outreach to the Asian community has been highly targeted, said Nina Li, outreach coordinator for San Mateo County. More than 30% of the population of the county is Asian. Chinese, Tagalog and Hindi are the most spoken non-English languages, aside from Spanish. 

Immigration status has been key to reach the diverse Asian populations, aside from language, said Li, who like many in her community is a non-citizen legal permanent resident who is experiencing her first decennial census. 

“For many in our community, this is a new concept, and they have the misconception that this is similar to an election where you have to be a citizen to participate, which is not the case,” Lee said. 

Li says their outreach efforts have used We Chat, a social media platform popular in Asia, and targeted messages to permanent residents and even temporary visa holders. 

“I am not a citizen, but I go to parks and libraries, I use public transportation, and my daughter is going to go to public schools, all services impacted by the 2020 census for the next 10 years,” she said. “We make sure people know that.” 

 Lisa Tealer, executive director of the Bay Area Community Health Advisory Council, said African Americans, Latinos and others in East Palo Alto respond to the idea of regaining the power of “being counted,” a phrase that historically has had negative connotations because the census was used to discriminate against some communities in the past. 

“We now claim it as power, we want to be counted because we helped build this country,” Tealer said. 

Similarly, the Pacific Islander community residents respond to the idea that the census is a way to ensure resources for the new generations, said Talavoy Aumavae, leader in the San Mateo County Pacific Islander Complete Count Committee. 

“We stressed the fact that our ancestors had migrated here for better opportunities for their families, and it’s imperative that we tie the census response to our futures,”  Aumavae said. 

 

A Conversation With Children’s Advocate Mayra Alvarez

School lunch programs, which fed nearly half of American’s schoolchildren before the Coronavirus, have turned into a lifeline for families hit by unemployment and rising food prices during the pandemic.

Many of those programs are now going broke, and their very existence over the next decade depends on the population numbers being gathered by the U.S. Census in communities that are considered “hard to count,”  says Mayra E. Alvarez, President of The Children’s Partnership, a nonprofit which advocates for underserved children.

When asked about the impact of the U.S. Census, which is conducted every ten years and has been delayed and disrupted (but NOT canceled) by the pandemic, Alvarez mentions this program first, although it’s hardly the only one that would be affected if there is a severe undercount of children and low income families.

In the past three months, school lunch programs have lost at least $1 billion during lockdowns and school closures that eliminated the revenue from families who were able to pay for the meals.

At the same time, costs have outstripped federal reimbursements for the emergency meals. Relief bills passed by Congress have helped, but the long-term survival of the programs depend on data from the 2020 Census.

For populations concerned with survival, filling out or responding to the 2020 Census may seem a distant priority.

But nothing is more important for vulnerable families than an accurate count, says Alvarez.

For starters, the biggest, most impactful federal and state programs that serve the health and well-being of children and families depend on formulas driven by census data.

The more people that are counted, particularly in those communities that need a variety of programs, the more money is allocated to serve them.

“We can point to Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), two fundamental programs for health care, which are partly based on census numbers,” said Alvarez.

“The programs that rely on census data are the ones the majority of people rely one, like Medicaid, food stamps, cash assistance”.

Medicaid, for example, is “part of a formula that distributes money to states, based on population and income; the states put money in and the federal government matches it.”

Experts estimate that the federal government provides between $1,700 and $2,000 for each person counted in the census.

For a minimum wage earner who’s a single mother of two, being counted or not counted in the census “can make a whole world of difference,” Alvarez says.

“If there is no adequate reflection of people like her in the census data, she may not be able to qualify for food stamps or enroll her children in child care because there won’t be enough slots”, Alvarez explains.

”She may also lose out on health coverage for her children, not find space in a neighborhood school and have to bus her children to another school. She might have to go farther away to find a hospital if the child gets sick because the hospital wasn’t built in her community since the population count did not reflect her presence,” she continues.

“This could be a very dire situation if the undercount is severe.”

“It is so much more important to be accurate right now because so many families are struggling,” Alvarez says. “These programs pretty much impact every aspect of their lives”.

Going back to school lunches, Alvarez says, an undercount of children and families could mean more hunger at a time when it’s unclear how soon will schools be able to go back to some kind of “normality”

“If families that have kids that depend on free and reduced lunch are undercounted, there will not be as many resources to make sure they are eating when they go to school”, Alvarez says. “These are kids that may not be able to eat at home or bring money for lunch”.

Thomas Saenz Is A Census Optimist

Editor’s Note: Amidst growing concerns over pandemic-related delays in the census deadline, one veteran voting rights activist finds reason to hope and sees potential for gains in representation by underserved groups, especially Latinos.

Thomas Saenz is that rare voting rights advocate who is optimistic about delays created by the COVID 19 pandemic in filling out census forms – and in submitting data for use in redistricting.

Delaying the deadline for data used to redraw voting districts for seats in the U.S. House and state legislatures will negatively affect elections in several states, redistricting reformers like Common Cause argue. They have asked Congress to review a request from the Census Bureau for a four month delay.

Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), sees the delay as a way to ensure a more accurate census count. That’s the key, he argues, to ensuring fairer political representation, whether on school boards, city councils, state legislative and congressional districts – even elections for local dog catcher.

Despite the low self-response rates for Latino areas, Saenz believes there’s a real potential for more Latino representation in the 2021 redistricting across the country.

“The low response rates were expected.  This delay gives not only the Census Bureau but  groups like NALEO, all of us, more time to get people to respond.  And the more time we get, the more complete the count.  Some people just take time to be convinced and often on the ordinary timeline, there’s not enough time to do that,” Saenz says.

“This was never going to be a great Census because of the Trump Administration which is the most divisive ever,” Saenz adds on reflection.  “But again, having more time is good.”

Saenz pins hopes on increases in the census count in Texas, where the gains in Latino immigration over the last decade have been dramatic.  “Even if the state is not investing any money in outreach, it’s projected Texas can get up to three new Congressional seats, and at least one or two of those should be Latinos.” He predicts push back from the state legislature, which conducts redistricting, unless the Democrats take the state house in the upcoming elections, Then, he says, it’s a different ball game.

California, on the other hand, may lose a seat but Saenz says it won’t be a Latino one.  “I expect to see a current seat that isn’t Latino becoming Latino.” And he expects to see a gain in Arizona and possibly one in Illinois, given the increase in both states’ Latino population.  “Illinois has one Latino majority seat and I expect it to become two, if the population has increased there as I expect it has. This might be the time”

Redistricting usually starts with the delivery of “apportionment counts” to the President on or before Jan 1  — the total population count of each state and the number of congressional seats to which each state is entitled based on that count.  The total number of seats is fixed at 435, but the population of each state determines whether they win or lose districts every 10 years.  Redrawing legislative districts based on census data usually begins on April 1, at the latest.

Because the whole Census operation has been delayed by the pandemic, the Census Bureau has asked Congress to extend the deadline for delivering data about Congress to April 30, 2021, and to the states to July 31, 2020.

Saenz sees potential pluses in delaying reapportionment of the House of Representatives from the end of December to April. It may actually mean a new President will be in office who won’t try to discount immigrants in the redistricting count, Saenz says.

Last July the Trump Administration issued an executive order to have departments collect “citizenship data” for the Census Bureau. It is a move widely seen as building the case for states to restrict redistricting counts to citizens only – rather than immigrants. The executive order came on the heels of the  Supreme Court’s ruling prohibiting the addition of a question about citizenship in the Census questionnaire.

Delaying state data will also allow a new president to “stop any mischief” regarding the use of citizenship data to exclude non citizens from redrawing legislative districts.  “A new administration can come in in a deliberate manner and stop that from going on… If more time is needed to gather and deliver the data,  they should not waste time on the executive order anyway. They must concentrate resources on tabulating the questionnaires, and not in having departments turn over citizenship data to the Census Bureau.”

One argument against postponing the data is that redistricting will be a rushed process. Here again, Saenz takes a pragmatic view.  “Texas is always a rushed process because the legislature is only in session for two months – March and April – and they have an early filing deadline for candidates in 2022.  In the worst case, they may have to change the deadline.  For us, if there is a legal challenge to their redistricting, it will be a burden, but it’s okay.”

In California, it’s not the legislature but a commission of appointees that oversees redistricting. Saenz says the commission can do some of its work before the data is released, starting with testimony from communities about their interests in being represented,  “They won’t know the numbers or be able to promote maps, but they can say: ‘We don’t want to split this area.’”

Redistricting advocates worry about Virginia and New Jersey which hold legislative e elections in 2021.  Saenz says, “Maybe they will have an election without new lines.  Is that a disaster? In my mind it’s not.”

For Saenz,  the significant increase in the Latino population over the last decade will create real opportunities for more political representation in the decade ahead.  More time  gives him reason to hope for a more accurate count.

EMS contributing editor Pilar Marrero is an author and veteran reporter for La Opinion.

“Sanitize and Self-Respond” Urge Civil Rights Leaders

In the time of Coronavirus, the state’s diverse communities are told that participation in the U.S. Census is still crucially important, aside from safe and secure

The U.S. Census self-response phase went live on March 12, and civil rights leaders of diverse ethnic groups came together to remind their communities of the many legal and privacy protections guaranteed by federal law for people to participate in the decennial count.

They also encouraged them to continue to “self-respond” by phone, online or mail and outlined the steps they will follow to continue to reach out to hard-to-count communities, addressing at the same time the health emergency of the Covid-19 as an additional challenge in Census 2020.

“We encourage our communities to sanitize and self-respond”, said Jeri Green, 2020 Census Senior Advisor for the National Urban League.

The leaders emphasized that most Americans are now able to self-respond to the Census in the privacy of their own homes without having to meet a Census taker or enumerator. For example, people can go to https://2020census.gov/ and answer nine questions (seven for every person in the household other than the one filling out the questionnaire). They can also respond by phone or in printed form.

Several organizations have mounted massive campaigns to help their communities maximize their participation, given that the data collected by the US Census is used in the distribution of resources, funding of services and political representation through drawing of districts for Congress, State Legislatures, etc.

Beth Lynk, Census counts campaign Director for The Leadership Conference Education Fund said the Census is “one of the most urgent civil rights issues facing the country and right now every person in the US has a chance to ensure a fair and complete count to all communities”.

Knowing that many in their communities have privacy concerns on the use of the data they will be sharing with the Census, the leaders reminded that the information has extraordinary levels of legal protection.

John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice pointed to the laws that govern the use of the data given to the U.S. Census Bureau as “the strongest privacy protections allowed in the United States”.

Asian Americans are among the communities where there are many undocumented immigrants and mixed-status households, which creates mistrust towards the government and could affect a complete count. Every person living in the United States by April 1 must be counted, and that includes undocumented immigrants.

“The confidentiality provision known as Title 13 prevents the government from using the Census data for any purpose other than the statistical one”, said Yang. “More importantly, the bureau and its employees are not allowed to share the data with any other government agency or officials for any reason”.

Certain information gathered by the Census cannot be published for 72 years, such as the name of the individual, business or organization, address or telephone number. Another layer of laws prohibits the use of data in any way against the individual who responded.

Yang pointed to their hotline for the Asian and Pacific Islander Community in several languages as a crucial resource to answer questions: 844-2020-API or 844-202-0204.

Other communities share the same privacy concern. This is a very important issue in black communities, said Green, of the Urban League, whose 90 affiliates are hard at work reassuring their members of the security of the data and the importance of participation.

“We are fighting to ensure that the black population, including immigrants, lose no ground, be it economic, political or in civil rights”, she emphasized. “The stakes are too high, please go to makeblackcount.org to learn more about our efforts”.

Lycia Maddox, Vice President of External Affairs for the National Congress of American Indians (which also includes Alaska Natives) said that the tribal nations across the country present a special challenge due to restrictions they have imposed on access to their lands, due to the Coronavirus.

“These communities often have no access to online and broadband to self-respond, and these new security measures make it impossible for enumerators to visit them and it delays mail delivery”, Maddox said. “We are as we speak working with different networks to come up with plans, and to increase community outreach and advertising”.

Lizette Escobedo, Census Director for the National Association of Latino and Elected Officials (NALEO) invited Latinos to call the bilingual Spanish-English hotline 877 ELCENSO or 877 352-3672 where there will be live paid operator answering questions and watching for reports of potential scammers or disinformation.

The organization has trained 3500 Census Ambassadors to assist the community in 15 states in filling out the Census and has launched two national campaigns, “Hágase contar and Hazme contar” focused on the larger Latino community and children younger than four, which experienced a large undercount in the 2010 Census.

Additional paid media campaigns will remind people that there is absolutely “NO CITIZENSHIP QUESTION” in the Census and addressing “fears of data privacy and cybersecurity”.

An additional ad campaign targeting Latina Millennials who are English-dominant was launched 2 months ago.

“Ensuring an accurate count seems like a heavier lift as every day happens folks have mentioned, we are committed to working with national local and media partners to do what we can to ensure that Latinos are heard, seen and counted this 2020 census”, she added.

In the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, organizations are revising the way they conduct the outreach to maintain community safety,

“Several grassroots organizations are moving to phone banks and text banks because the table opportunities are very restrictive right now and we want to exercise caution”, said Yang. “We are also leaving drop off literature in supermarkets, community centers, and clinics”.

Ditas Katague, from the California Complete count office, said that the state of California has spent more than all the other states combined to reach out to the hardest to count populations and ensure everyone participates.

“The investment is unprecedented, a total of 172.2 million dollars and is larger than all other states combined, we are on a league of our own”, said Katague. “We have unique challenges, a diverse population, and a large geographic size. We have 120 partners throughout the state and we are coordinating the largest mobilization of partners in our state´s history”.

The leaders reiterated that their overall goal is that every Californian understands that the Census is not only “safe and secure”, and vital for the future of all the communities. “The goal is to ensure that everyone is invited and able to participate in the 2020 Census”, said Beth Lynk of the Leadership Conference.

Pilar Marrero is a journalist and author with long experience in covering social and political issues of the Latino community in the United States. She is one of the foremost experts on immigration policy and politics in the US media world and has covered the issue extensively during her years as a reporter. Marrero is the author of the books “Killing the American Dream” and “El Despertar del Sueño Americano.