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Could Wildfires Affect the 2020 Census?

Sarah Bohn, Tess Thorman September 19, 2018
photo - Wildfire Threatening Homes

The decennial census plays an essential role in American democracy. The stakes are huge for California, and 2020 is fast approaching. This series of blog posts takes a detailed look at California communities that may be at risk of being undercounted.

Wildfires in California have burned millions of acres and destroyed or threatened thousands of homes, displacing families around the state. Among their many devastating long-term effects, disasters may elevate the risk of undercounting some communities in the upcoming census.

The Census Bureau’s goal is to “count everyone, only once, and in the right place.” In practice, this means that people are counted where they reside as of “Census Day” (April 1, 2020), even if this is not their permanent residence. Given that Californians who lose their homes in disasters must then find housing in a notoriously difficult market, housing conditions alone could pose a hurdle to accurately counting communities that have been displaced by wildfires.

Hurricane Katrina presented similar issues for the 2010 Census. While some people displaced from the Gulf Coast moved away permanently, many others were counted in counties or states they intended to leave once their homes were again habitable. Still others stayed in accommodations closer to home, which—depending on resources—were sometimes shared, non-standard, or even not yet considered habitable. These families proved difficult to reach by mail, with just 45% of New Orleans households returning forms at first (compared with 61% in 2000). On-the-ground staff were ultimately responsible for hand-delivering questionnaires to the majority of New Orleans homes. Even though the Census Bureau can request a funding contingency for such costly efforts, it will have many competing demands for resources in 2020.

In the aftermath of California’s recent fires, local areas face unique challenges to getting an accurate census count—particularly in terms of housing. Here we look at three of those areas across the state. Current estimates show that 20,000 residents were affected by the Carr fire (Redding, 2018) and that the Thomas fire (Ventura County, 2017) and the Tubbs fire (Santa Rosa, 2017) each affected about 40,000 residents. Before the fires, none of these areas stood out in terms of having large populations of hard-to-count residents, but the loss of housing could create new obstacles.

Even in normal times, housing plays a key role in getting an accurate census count. Rental units and mobile homes are less likely to appear on official census address lists. Moreover, their residents tend to move more often, making them hard to reach. Wildfire displacement heightens these challenges, especially in places where housing was already hard to count. For example, mobile homes made up 6% of housing in the Thomas fire area—double the statewide average. In the Carr fire area, they constituted 10%.

Before the fires, the share of renters in all three fire areas was lower than the statewide share, but the loss of homes likely changed this picture. CalFire reports that the Thomas fire destroyed 775 homes—and subsequent mudslides in the area demolished at least another 100. The Carr fire destroyed 1,079 homes, and the Tubbs fire razed 3,000. Displaced residents are more likely to rent, reside in non-standard arrangements, and/or struggle with poverty, creating new challenges for the census count.

Blog figure: Housing conditions in fire zones varied widely

In 2020, given the likelihood that families will continue to be displaced by wildfires or other natural disasters, it will be important for state and local leaders to coordinate with the Census Bureau to ensure that all Californians are counted accurately—regardless of their housing situation. For more on areas with hard-to-count housing and other challenges, visit PPIC’s interactive census maps.

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