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Video: Preparing California for Census 2020

Mary Severance April 1, 2019
photo - PPIC Census Event Panel, March 25, 2019

Is California ready for the 2020 Census? PPIC convened a group of experts last week for a progress report on preparations for the decennial population count, which begins next April 1. PPIC president Mark Baldassare started off by asking California secretary of state Alex Padilla to outline what is at stake.

Padilla offered a “quick civics lesson,” explaining that the census helps determine the amount of federal funding that goes to each state, as well as each state’s overall number of congressional seats and its configuration of legislative districts. If there’s an undercount in California, the state could lose billions of dollars over the next decade.

Are we ready? “Not yet,” Padilla answered. But he added that California is “a little ahead of the curve,” with the highest level of state investment in outreach and preparation in the nation. In addition to longstanding challenges—for example, California has 30% of the recognized “hard to count” communities nationwide—the state faces some new issues, such as inadequate federal funding, cybersecurity issues, a rule that bars legal permanent residents from working as canvassers, and the possible inclusion of a question about citizenship.

How is the state preparing? Marc Berman, a state assemblymember and chair of the Assembly Select Committee on the Census, outlined three major areas of focus: adequate funding, coordination of efforts, and collaboration by state and local government as well as community-based, philanthropic, and business organizations. “We are better prepared than we ever have been before,” he added.

Ditas Katague, director of California Complete Count, offered a wealth of detail on the progress her office has made—opening five field offices, dividing the state into ten regions based on hard-to-count populations, and working with community groups and media in these regions.

Non-governmental groups are playing a key role. Melina Sanchez, the program officer for civic participation initiatives at the James Irvine Foundation, outlined the two overarching goals of a recently convened statewide philanthropic roundtable: to help California reach its hardest-to-count populations and to use the census as a movement-building opportunity for historically underrepresented groups. For Sanchez, it is important to “flip the narrative” so that it’s not about people’s fear of participating in the census but is instead a story about “folks feeling the empowerment of standing up despite all the barriers.”

Sarah Bohn, PPIC’s director of research, highlighted the need to counteract widespread mistrust of government, concerns about privacy and misuse of data, and mistaken ideas about the purpose of the census. A key way to motivate most people, she added, is to make sure they know that their community benefits from an accurate count: “Understanding the funding that goes to your community . . . really seems to encourage participation.”

What would a successful census look like? Katague summed it up: “No undercount, no loss of a congressional seat, no disinformation snafus”—and, on the positive side, increased civic engagement.

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