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With billions at stake, California gets ready to combat potential 2020 Census undercount

With billions at stake, California gets ready to combat potential 2020 Census undercount

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James Christy, assistant director of field operations at the U.S. Census Bureau, and Ditas Katague, director of California Compl
James Christy, assistant director of field operations at the U.S. Census Bureau, and Ditas Katague, director of California Complete Count, talk to reporters at a day-long briefing hosted by the Center for Health Journalism on Friday.

You could be forgiven for thinking of the U.S. Census as the kind of dry counting of heads that only excites data wonks and bean counters. But don’t let the stodgy civics class façade fool you — the Census is really about money and power.

Several speakers drove home this point at a full-day briefing Friday for California reporters on strategies and skills for reporting on the 2020 Census, hosted by the Center for Health Journalism. An undercount threatens both federal funding and political representation, speakers emphasized.

“If we don’t get a fair and accurate count of every Californian, we could lose a Congressional seat as well as losing billions of dollars in very important funding that’s there to help our communities and neighborhoods,” said Rosalind Gold, chief public policy officer for NALEO Educational Fund. More than $675 billion in federal funding is allocated annually based on Census data.

Ditas Katague, director of California Complete Count, the state’s Census outreach effort, echoed that follow-the-money message, casting the Census as the inverse of tax day. “On April 1st, once a decade, you have the opportunity to demand that the money comes back — those tax dollars come back to you community,” she told a room full of reporters.

But there are a lot of reasons to fear funding cuts if a politically motivated undercount happens, panelists said. Intense controversy around the proposed “citizenship question” has led to fears that Latinos will be dramatically undercounted. “There’s a lot of concern about privacy and the potential fear of retribution by participating in the Census,” said James Christy, assistant director of field operations at the U.S. Census Bureau.

But it’s not the only hurdle to an accurate count. Cristy highlighted a few others: Broad distrust of government, a highly polarized society and the fact that the Census will take place in a presidential election year. “The 2020 Census is facing some unique challenges,” he said.

That’s why the state is working alongside private foundations and nonprofits in a broad campaign to dispel fears and ensure as many residents of “hard-to-count” communities, particularly in poor and rural areas, are counted in the census.

“The key message I have for other states is that California is not going to leave its fate in the hands of the federal government,” Katague said.

California has already pledged $100 million for the census campaign, and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently proposed spending another $54 million in an effort to save money by spending money, one of 10 states to do so. Katague said the California outreach campaign is focused on finding “trusted messengers” in hard-to-count communities, setting up questionnaire assistance centers and working with local and ethnic media to raise awareness about the census. (You can find a detailed map of California’s hard-to-count communities here.)

“We learned regional media locally created and ethnic media and advertising was going to be more effective than any media created on Madison Avenue,” Katague said.

The California Endowment, a private health foundation, is spending $10 million to further outreach in some of the state’s hardest-to-reach communities, according to Jonathan Tran, program manager for the Endowment. (Disclosure: The California Endowment is a funder of both the day-long Census briefing and the Center for Health Journalism’s programs.)

“We are unabashedly targeting the hardest, hardest-to-count populations,” Tran said, with a focus on rural communities. The goal is to “really be surgical about where we’re investing our resources.”

Drawing on lessons from 2018 efforts to boost voter participation in disenfranchised communities, Tran said it’s unlikely any single message will carry the day. “Overall, the key is volume,” he said, adding: “We’re anticipating you’re going to need six or seven points of contact to get people to participate in the census.”

Making a point echoed by other speakers, Tran said the most effective outreach messages will be those that bring the issue home for people. “At the end of the day, this affects your bread and butter. This affects your family. This affects your health,” he said.

With platoons of outreach workers gearing up and tens of millions in funding for the 2020 Census campaign, California might seem well-equipped to ward off the more dire of undercount scenarios. But Charley Johnson, project lead for the Data Integrity Project at Data & Society in New York, reminded reporters that online techniques for spreading fear and disinformation among vulnerable populations have grown exponentially more sophisticated and powerful since the last census in 2010.

One big problem is that there is simply not a lot of online content about the Census, Johnson said. “One could argue the Census is one giant data void,” he said, a problem made worse by the fact it only takes place once a decade. “There are not content creators creating content about the Census on a regular basis. This means the Census can be easily co-opted by anyone looking to cause confusion or propagate disinformation.”

Getting an accurate Census count could also be vulnerable to sock-puppet accounts, which are online personas calibrated to spread fear and disinformation.

“You can imagine a scenario where someone poses as an undocumented person claiming to be visited by ICE and posting a picture of that on Twitter,” Johnson said. “These techniques will be used to try to dupe journalists, to dupe influencers and political actors — to raise fear and amplify particular narrative frames.”

The creation of a false atmosphere of fear around the 2020 Census is what proponents of a full and accurate count fear the most.

“We have enormous confidence in the U.S. Census Bureau,” said NALEO Educational Fund’s Rosalind Gold. “But we are more worried than in any Census in the past that the (Trump) Administration will say something or do something that will make people worried about whether the Bureau is going to” misuse the information.

“A big part of our advocacy is to say to this administration, ‘Do not undermine this count. Let people be able to feel confident in the Bureau’s culture.”

Visit our Facebook page to watch a recording of many of the sessions via Facebook Live.

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