California Has a Healthy Obsession With the 2020 Census

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Fears are running high that the 2020 U.S. census could result in a costly undercount in a number of states and communities. Politicians and policy makers in the parts of the country with large hard-to-count immigrant and minority populations are particularly worried.

They should be. This will be the first time that the census, carried out every 10 years, is conducted online. Court battles and funding cuts have delayed the production of backup paper forms and shortened the time for testing online portals and rural surveys. Although the courts blocked the administration’s efforts to include a citizenship question, President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and orders to round up undocumented residents may discourage many from taking part in the census.

California is especially aware of these challenges. With both vast rural areas and a large immigrant population, the nation’s most populous state faces an undercount that is projected to be as high as 2%, close to double the national average. That could cost the state a seat in the House of Representatives during the next reapportionment process, as well as federal funding for everything from schools to infrastructure.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in the 1990 survey, California missed more people than any other state — about 2.7% of its population. The undercount cost the state one House seat and an estimated $2 billion in federal funding during the 1990s.

To ensure an accurate count in 2020, California has developed an aggressive strategy that includes enlisting help from the public schools, including teachers, parents and students. It’s an example other states and localities with similar populations should follow, especially because children are among the groups at greatest risk of being undercounted.

Federal law makes it a serious crime to share information provided by individuals to the Census Bureau, but noncitizens still need assurance that participating in the survey won’t bring immigration enforcement agents to their doors.

Neighborhood schools are ideally positioned to tackle the census challenges, because local residents are more likely to trust them than they are other government entities. Schools can also provide the computers and internet connections that hard-to-count areas often lack, a resource that will be particularly important next year.

California has spent at least $100 million since 2017 to ensure an accurate count, and much of that money is going to schools. Thirty-two county offices are funding school-based efforts to reach the targeted populations.

Los Angeles County alone — identified as the nation’s “hardest to count” county — will get $2 million for a range of activities, from training parents and administrators about the importance of the census to setting up kiosks where families can fill out survey forms.

Neighboring Orange County has allocated funds to a school district in Anaheim, which has a large Latino and Asian population, to train parents to operate school-based centers where families can get information and help in filling out the online surveys. Student groups are involved, and there is curriculum training for teachers who want to do census-related units in their classes.

As an example of these grass-roots efforts, the superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, Michael Matsuda, last spring enlisted the help of the leader of the Vietnamese students’ association at one school. Anika Nguyenkhoa, 17, developed a Ted talk-like speech that she has presented to hundreds of parents and county educators. She is teaming up with the heads of Vietnamese groups at other Anaheim high schools for two news conferences in February, one for the general public and the other targeting Vietnamese students.

The school district has also enlisted the Anaheim Bros, a civic fraternity founded, initially, to give young Latinos an alternative to gangs. By connecting the census to political representation and to local funding, Anaheim’s push is part of a district-wide civics-awareness effort that Matsuda sees as essential for engaging immigrant students and their families.

A few other states also are targeting schools, including Illinois and New Mexico. New Mexico, which has remote rural populations, recently set aside $3.4 million to encourage counties, public schools and Native American communities to complete the population survey; Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is seeking an additional $8 million for the census campaign.

New Jersey has designated 21 schools for outreach efforts. Public schools in Newark, which has a large minority and homeless population that makes it a hard-to-count city, will be open to parents on April 1, the day most states start the census count, so they can complete surveys at their children’s schools.

Local efforts can have a huge impact. In 2010, census outreach by the Dominican community in New York City’s Washington Heights resulted in a response rate of close to 80 percent — among the highest in the nation, according to Ahsia Badi, New York State census director for Emgage USA, a Muslim-American civic organization. As a result, she said, Washington Heights gained six new schools. Badi is using the Washington Heights example to try to overcome mistrust among Muslims in New York, where the police used census data to identify and spy on Muslim communities after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

California’s census strategy should serve as a beacon for states like New York, which only rolled out its 2020 census plan the week before Thanksgiving. Although the New York City Department of Education plans to provide information on the census, including fliers, to students and families, the state needs a grass-roots strategy for getting out the count — one that will include teachers, students and families.

Neighborhood schools offer more than just a resource for completing the census in hard-to-count states and communities. For all states, a K-12 census strategy could serve as a valuable lesson in civics for students and community engagement for parents.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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