Census Day 2020 is fast approaching, and results from the population count will determine political representation and federal funding for California for the next 10 years. Speaking at a PPIC event in Sacramento last week, Alex Padilla, California secretary of state, joined Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of PPIC, to reflect on the importance of counting the country’s most populous state.
Padilla stressed that along with billions in funding for education, health care, and other critical areas, the count affects the state’s representation in Congress as well as lines drawn at all district levels. “It affects you regardless of the issues you care about, regardless of where you live,” Padilla said. He further emphasized that the census is a population count, not a citizen or adult count. In 2010, California undercounted children under five, which led to underfunded schools over the next 10 years. “Here is a way to make sure schools get the funding they deserve without raising taxes.”
Following the conversation with the secretary of state, Sarah Bohn, PPIC vice president of research and senior fellow, convened an expert panel that expanded on strategies at the frontlines for reaching hard-to-count communities.
Assemblymember Marc Berman discussed the investment by California— which has directed $187 million toward census infrastructure at state, regional, and local levels—that sets the groundwork for outreach and coordination. Partner organizations are now pushing a public awareness and information campaign. “Nobody has ever tried anything like this in a state of 40 million people at the level of specificity and detail that we really need to be successful,” Berman said.
Success depends on participation, however, and trust in government can influence participation in the census—especially among hard-to-count groups who may feel suspicion of the federal government. Apathy is another obstacle. Carolyn Coleman, executive director for the League of California Cities, described how the census returns funds to communities: “We send a lot of dollars to Washington, DC, every year via the tax code, and this is one of the most important ways we get those dollars reinvested back into our communities.”
It takes coordination by trusted messengers to reach hard-to-count groups and communicate this idea. Ditas Katague, director of California Complete Count, said, “We have amazing partners on all levels—whether we’ve contracted them, whether they are foundations, whether they’re state agencies.” Katague outlined efforts by a Sacramento organization mapping territory from the Oregon border to Yolo County, and San Diego ambassadors doing outreach in Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Vietnamese, and Somali. Regions are playing to their strengths: Silicon Valley is emphasizing tech; the San Joaquin Valley is partnering with faith-based organizations.
Californians can participate in the census starting in March, and assistance centers around the state will offer help through April. Katague emphasized the importance of motivating others to complete it, saying, “There are 9 questions on the census. It takes 10 minutes to secure the future for the next 10 years.”