San Mateo County is leading the state in census returns with 72.8 percent of households having responded as of Tuesday, but county officials say more work is needed to ensure that the hardest to count populations are included.

Despite the many obstacles to a full count — including the worsening novel coronavirus pandemic, language barriers and widespread distrust of the federal government among critical population groups — San Mateo County has nearly reached its 2010-level of participation, which came in at 73.2 percent in the last decennial effort to count every person in the country.

“Given the challenges we faced this year, I am so pleased and thankful for all the work everyone is doing,” county Census Management Analyst Megan Gosh said Tuesday during a teleconference hosted by Ethnic Media Services.

Gosh said the county has spent nearly two years and $1.3 million to organize public awareness campaigns aimed at encouraging people to fill out the U.S. Census Bureau questionnaire, with much of that money being doled out to community groups with intimate knowledge of the area’s hardest-to-count populations.

Those populations, including Latino, African American, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander and immigrant communities, have historically experienced significant undercounts.

For example, the 2010 census identified about 1,900 Latino residents in a southern part of the county’s unincorporated coastal area, but the real number is likely closer to 5,000 or 6,000, according to Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente, a nonprofit social services organization.

“We are missing a lot of people,” Mancera said.

Obstacles to a complete count

Part of that is because the census doesn’t send forms to post office boxes and many people don’t have traditional addresses. Also, because the area is so large, about 164 square miles, it’s not easy to physically find and count every individual, she said.

Compounding this is the fact that the pandemic caused the cancellation of big in-person events where volunteers would traditionally do much of their census education work.

Outreach groups have had to adopt new strategies on the fly, and many now primarily rely on phone banking, text messaging and social media campaigns to get the word out.

Also, volunteers have fanned out to medical clinics and food distribution centers, both of which have become vital community resources during the pandemic and subsequent economic devastation.

In addition, many immigrant communities are unfamiliar with the census, are distrustful of the federal government — a distrust that significantly intensified after Donald Trump took the White House — and remain reluctant to voluntarily provide personal information to the Census Bureau.

“Since 2016, everyone was really trying to stay off the radar as much as possible,” Mancera said.

And while not every argument in favor of census participation is effective in every community, a point made prominently by nearly everyone speaking to newly arrived individuals is that the Census Bureau is forbidden by law from sharing personal information with any other individual or government agency, including law enforcement and immigration officials.

Misconceptions abound

Nina Li, community outreach coordinator with the San Mateo County Office of Community Affairs, said that while roughly 30 percent of the county’s population is Asian, many are experiencing the census for the first time.

“It’s totally a new concept with them,” Li said. “The biggest misconception to them is they think that the census is very similar to an election where you have to be a citizen to participate.”

In fact, the census is designed to count every person living in the United States, regardless of citizenship status.

The Trump Administration’s unsuccessful push to include a citizenship question on the forms, however, has gone a long way to deepening distrust in many communities.

“Acknowledge that the census has not been kind to communities of color and we have an opportunity to change that.”

Lisa Tealer, Bay Area Community Health Advisory Council

African Americans, too, often have a distrust of the federal government and have had to overcome the bias and racism built into the census, which for many years only counted them as three-fifths of a person, said Lisa Tealer, executive director of the Bay Area Community Health Advisory Council.

“Systems like the census … have come to African Americans seeking help and support but we often don’t see the benefits of these efforts,” Tealer said.

It’s important for outreach volunteers to acknowledge the pain and anxiety the community experiences when interacting with government agencies and officials, Tealer said.

“Acknowledge that the census has not been kind to communities of color and we have an opportunity to change that,” she said.

Despite these and other obstacles to a full count, San Mateo County appears poised to surpass participation numbers from 2010 by the time the count winds down on Oct. 31.

“We are ecstatic to be number one in the state, but we have a lot of work to do,” said Melissa Vergara, a census specialist with the San Mateo County Office of Community Affairs.

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.