(Image courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau)

In the midst of a global pandemic that has severely curtailed or outright shuttered much of American life, California officials are still pushing hard for a robust count of the state’s hardest to reach populations in the 2020 U.S census.

California, with a population of about 38 million, is home to roughly 11 million people who are considered “hard to count,” according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Roughly half of that hard-to-count population are Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, said Ditas Katague, director of the California Complete Count – Census 2020 Office.

In order to reach these groups, the state is spending $187 million on outreach and public awareness efforts, passing the funds to hundreds of nonprofit community-based organizations that serve hard-to-count populations, including AAPI, Latino, African American and Native Hawaiian communities.

Prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the nearly ubiquitous shelter-in-place orders intended to slow its spread, most of these groups had planned to encourage census participation by hosting in-person educational events, attending community gatherings like street fairs and church services and sending outreach volunteers door-to-door to nearly every corner of the state.

The state had even planned to set up more than 2,000 census questionnaire assistance centers in key neighborhoods throughout the state, Katague said.

Ditas Katague, director of the California Complete Count – Census 2020 Office.

But not only has COVID-19 made widespread person-to-person contact impossible, it has sucked up much of the nation’s attention, leaving little room for conversations that aren’t virus-related.

“Some people may say, ‘Well (the pandemic) is our big problem. Why should we be worrying about the census right now?’” said state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento.

But, if anything, the pandemic has highlighted the need for a complete and accurate count, said Pan, a pediatrician who also has a public health background.

Of course, Californians need to continue to stay home, wear masks, wash their hands and maintain physical distance from each other as much as possible, he said.  

The data collected by the census is used to determine how much federal funding is allocated to every state, including California, for things like health care programs, food and housing assistance, road construction, educational spending, and unemployment services, among other things.

And for every person not counted, California stands to lose about $1,000 a year over the next 10 years, Pan said.

Additionally, accurate census data helps state officials plan recovery operations in the wake of large-scale disasters like the one we’re struggling with now.

“If you think about public health affecting all of us, that’s really what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the census,” said state Controller Betty Yee.  

“We want to know where people are in California. We want to know where to direct resources. We want to know where we need to be culturally competent with our resources, how to be language specific with our resources,” Yee said.

Yee, Pan and Katague urged every Californian to fill out their census forms Thursday during a Facebook Live forum that was billed as an Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month event.

Currently, the census response rate in California is 61 percent while the national rate is about 60 percent.

State Controller Betty Yee.

Census officials are encouraged by those numbers, but many groups still face a significant undercount due to language and cultural barriers, distrust of government in general and a lack of awareness about the decennial effort’s importance.

Katague stressed that, despite many groups’ fear of giving personal information to the federal government, the census data is safe and secure.

“No other federal agencies can get it. No law enforcement can get it. People can be put in jail for giving out your personal data,” Katague said.  

“There is no citizenship question on the form,” she added.

Kiley Russell, Bay City News

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.