April 1 is National Census Day in America and despite an unprecedented investment and organizational effort, California’s initial response rate is coming in below the national average.

Every 10 years on April 1, the U.S. Census Bureau is charged with taking a snapshot of America by attempting to count every person living in the country on that date.

The data will be used to determine how trillions of dollars of taxpayer money is allocated over the next decade, as well as to establish the number of congressional representatives apportioned to each state, making the census one of the largest and most important of all the federal government’s constitutionally mandated functions.

The census is considered so important that every person living in the United States, regardless of citizenship status, is required by law to fill it out.

“It’s about power, it’s about money and it’s about data,” said Ditas Katague, director of the California Complete Count 2020 Census Office.

So far, the state’s response rate is at about 37.9 percent, just below the national average of 38.4, despite having kicked-started the statewide census organization in 2017 and allocated $187.3 million to conduct census-awareness campaigns targeting the hardest to count populations.

In fact, California is spending more money than all other states combined on census outreach efforts, Katague said.

That is partly why the state and its some 120 community-based partners — local and tribal governments, nonprofit groups, schools, labor unions and faith-based organizations, among others — are pushing hard to increase that percentage.

A ‘hard-to-count’ population

Of course, California faces significant barriers to ensuring that all of its residents are accounted for in the census, not least of which is its sheer size.

Its large population — state officials believe there are roughly 40 million people living in California — and its geographic vastness make any effort to quantify every individual living within its borders extremely difficult.

It’s also home to more than 11 million people who the U.S. Census Bureau identifies as “hard to count,” Katague said.

For context, that’s larger than the entire population of the state of Georgia.

Hard-to-count groups include immigrant communities, people with limited English language skills, the elderly, the homeless, many communities of color and people who simply don’t trust the federal government, among others.

In order to reach these communities, California is coordinating its outreach efforts though its community-based partners like Asian Americans Advancing Justice, or AAAJ, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, representatives of which joined Katague on a teleconference with reporters Wednesday.

Compounding the perennial barriers to a full census count is the novel coronavirus pandemic and the efforts to slow its spread, which feature stay-at-home orders for most Americans — including the entire state of California.

June Lim of AAAJ said her group and its 11 census campaign partners have had to quickly pivot from in-person outreach to a more robust digital strategy in order to convince Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations to participate.

“Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are least likely to respond to the 2020 census and are most concerned that the Census Bureau will not keep their information confidential and will share their information with other government agencies,” Lim said.

Confidentiality concerns

One of the most important massages, therefore, has been that it is illegal for anyone to share individual census information — even with other government agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Internal Revenue Service — and anyone caught doing so can face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Also, it’s been important to reassure many immigrant communities that the census form doesn’t ask about citizenship status, since many undocumented residents believe the government is trying to use their information in deportation hearings.

CAIR CEO Basim Elkarra said he and his group’s partners are doing their best to remind people that they have a right to stand up and be counted.

Many don’t know about the census, they didn’t have a census in their previous countries and many have a distrust of the federal government,” Elkarra said.

To help get the word out, organizers are working hard to contact people via phone banks, online events and by dropping off information at ethnic grocery stores and restaurants where people can still show up to buy food, he said.

Tavae Samuelu, executive director of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, said her group’s census partners are having some success using paid advertisements, but she notes those typically favor youth outreach.

“Phone banking in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County will start next week, so hopefully that reaches those who aren’t on social media,” Samuelu said.

While the California response rate isn’t yet where state officials hope it to be, there is still plenty of time to turn the tide.

People can respond online, over the phone or by using the mail-in form until Aug. 14, a deadline that was pushed back from July 31 due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the national response to it.

“It’s a marathon,” Katague said.

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Local News Matters on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.