(CN) – Beginning in mid-March, the U.S. Census Bureau will begin soliciting online responses from California residents, marking the first time the federal agency will use online tools to make its count.
Later, beginning April 1, the enumeration process in California will commence. The stakes for the state are high, as California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said during an event sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California.
“If there is an undercount in California, not only does the state not get the funds we deserve and need, but also our voice in Washington diminishes,” he said.
California officials are increasingly concerned about an undercount.
Many Golden State residents are immigrants, sometimes living with multiple families in a single house, may not speak English proficiently, may be experiencing homelessness or may be under the age of 5 and unable to speak for themselves.
“Ten years ago, people under 5 were the most undercounted population in California,” Padilla said.
This undercounting has dramatic impacts on school funding formulas and the ability to receive federal grants, the official said.
It’s not just schools, according to Carolyn Coleman, the executive director of the League of California Cities.
The state, county and city governments in California receive federal funding and grants based on a formula that considers population numbers afforded by the census.
“The money is doled out based on population,” said Coleman, who said as much as a half billion dollars annually to cities alone is predicated on having an accurate count.
But it’s not just funding.
California’s representation in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College is based on data accumulated during the census.
“Now is not the time to lose our representation in the U.S. Congress,” Coleman said, alluding to the fact that the California congressional delegation has established itself as a reliable bulwark against the Trump administration.
But Coleman, Padilla and others are not only worried about an undercount for the reasons already mentioned. President Donald Trump pushed to have the U.S. Census Bureau ask residents if they are citizens, sending waves of fear through immigrant communities in California and elsewhere that by participating in the census, they give the federal government information that could ultimately upend their way of life.
But Padilla said this fear is unfounded.
He noted the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2019 that the Census Bureau could not include the question, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court’s liberal minority.
He also noted Title 13 of the United States Code prevents the Census Bureau from sharing any information that could help identify an individual or a business, given that the data is supposed to provide a sense of overall population trends.
However, California Assemblyman Marc Berman, who chairs the committee related to the census in the Legislature, acknowledged census workers will have to work against a deep sense of mistrust in certain areas of the state.
“Unfortunately, the damage has been done,” he said. “Fear and anxiety are already baked into the psyche of our friends and neighbors.”
Ditas Katague, director of California Complete Count, said her organization is attempting to overcome such fear and anxiety by appealing to nonprofits, community leaders and other organizations that can provide reassurance while emphasizing the importance of an accurate count for everyone in the state.
“For instance, we have spent a huge amount of resources making sure we count the Native American community in California,” she said, noting how the organization partnered with Native media outlets and other organizations to get the message out.
Ultimately, if California does lose funding and a seat in the Congress, it may not be because of undercounting at all.
A detailed analysis released by the Brookings Institute last month predicted California will lose a congressional seat because its population growth has slowed, while other states have gained more people in the last 10 years.
California has never lost a seat after a decennial census, but the cost of living, the housing crisis and a slowdown in immigration means it could for the first time.
“I’m not surprised by the population numbers coming out,” Berman said. “Many friends of mine, who have good jobs, are leaving the state because of the cost of living.”
Meanwhile Texas, which is growing rapidly as California’s population diminishes, is projected to pick up three seats in Congress.
All of this is just preliminary analysis and projection, as the true tale of the tape won’t come until after the citizens are counted.
But California’s commitment to ensure the count is accurate is not just words from Padilla, Berman and others. It has allocated $187 million toward various programs to ensure an accurate count.
From the state’s perspective, the outlay is an investment intent on making sure all residents are counted so the federal funding formulas reflect the facts on the ground.