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California’s Digital Divide and the 2020 Census

Justin Goss May 21, 2019
Man At Laptop Computer At Home Getty 501799711

The 2020 Census will be the first decennial census with a fully online component. Rather than mailing forms to every household, the US Census Bureau will instead send out postcards asking households to take the census online, hoping to achieve a 55% online response rate. Then, as in years past, census workers will visit those who did not respond and conduct in-person interviews.

California’s size and diversity present unique challenges to this effort. One significant challenge lies in how many households report having reliable high speed internet—essential to completing the census online.

The contrasts across counties are stark. For example, according to the most recent estimates, more than 89% of households in Santa Clara County report having high speed access at home. In contrast, in Trinity, Glenn, Modoc, Sierra, Tulare, and Imperial Counties, more than 30% of households say they do not.

What’s more, these estimates actually understate the disparity. In the counties of Colusa, Sierra, Yuba, Tulare, and Plumas more than 15% of households report having high speed internet only through their cell phone data plans and no other source, and in 11 other counties at least 10% of households report the same.

Figure - Access to High Speed Internet at Home Varies Widely Across Counties

Of further concern is that these counties are the very ones that have been identified as being hard to count. In addition to sparse internet access, communities may be hard to count because they contain higher rates of historically undercounted groups, such as noncitizens and African Americans, or because large shares of their residents rent rather than own their households.

These challenges are real, but California is working hard to overcome them. State agencies were allocated over $100 million in 2018-19—with another $54 million proposed—so they may partner with the Census Bureau to help identify hard to count communities, encourage participation, and better ensure an accurate count of all Californians.

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