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As part of their effort to increase awareness of the 2020 U.S. census — and boost their residents’ participation — the mayors of Oakland and Richmond have embarked on a competition to see which city has a higher response rate.

With most federal funding tied to census numbers, which determine how many congressional representatives are apportioned to each community, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Richmond Mayor Tom Butt are upping the ante even further.

Now at stake is a gift basket of locally produced items from the losing mayor.

“I think the cool thing that Oakland has done is we took money what we had budgeted to do awareness events and used it to launch the Great Oakland Check-In,” Schaaf said.

Oakland reallocated the funding for in-person events that have been canceled due to the pandemic to recruit 700 volunteers to call people all over the city and encourage them to fill out the census form — and to make sure they’re holding up OK, Schaaf said.

“It really became census-plus,” she said. “And to have neighbors calling neighbors is really a beautiful thing. We need the community to trust that they can give even this federal government their information, so we worked with many long-established trusted community partners to get that message of trust.”

Many communities, especially communities of color and immigrant communities, have expressed fear over the possible misuse of personal information by the federal government.

To combat this fear, outreach volunteers in both cities are reminding people that it is illegal for anyone to share personal information collected on census forms with any other branch of the government, including law enforcement and immigration agencies.

‘Information kept safe’

“We have years and years of proof that the census information is kept safe. We have years and years of proof that it has not ever been used or abused,” Schaaf said.

Also, volunteers are trying to hammer home the point that the census does not ask about citizenship or immigration status, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to include a question on those topics.

Currently, Oakland maintains the narrowest of leads in the competition, with 64.5 percent of residents having so far filled out a census questionnaire either online, over the phone or by mailing in a paper form, according to the U.S. Census Bureau self-response data. Richmond is in hot pursuit, with a 64.4 percent self-response rate as of Wednesday afternoon.

“We’re encouraged that our completion rate is a little higher than last (time),” Schaaf said.

Statewide, the rate was 63.1 percent Wednesday, and the national rate was 61.9 percent.

“The importance of it cannot be overstated,” Butt said. “So many things that are important to us are based on the census, including our representation in Congress and the distribution of federal funding. It’s just absolutely essential that we count every single person, otherwise it’s going to cost us in the end.”

Richmond’s community awareness efforts include a “Census 2020 Caravan” hosted by Butt and San Pablo Mayor Arturo Vargas.

The motorcade drove through neighborhoods with low response rates — like Belding Woods, Iron Triangle, North Richmond, Santa Fe and Coronado — to encourage participation and to share the phone numbers and website link to complete the census questionnaire.

Count determines funding

The census is the federal government’s decennial effort to count every person living inside the United States.

The data collected by the census determine how much money each state will receive for more than 300 programs, including transportation, housing, environmental, nutrition and community health and development programs, according to a study by The George Washington University Institute of Public Policy, “Counting for Dollars 2020: The Roll of the Decennial Census in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds.”

In 2017, the latest year for which there is data, California received more than $172 billion in federal spending for such programs, as well as for Medicare and Medicaid, according to the study.

A robust census count is considered so important to the health of state and local communities, that this year California is spending an unprecedented amount of money — $187 million — to encourage as many people as possible fill out the forms.

“The importance of it cannot be overstated. … It’s just absolutely essential that we count every single person, otherwise it’s going to cost us in the end.”

Tom Butt, Richmond mayor

The director of California Complete Count Census 2020, Ditas Katague, has said that the census is about “money and power” and that for every person who goes uncounted, the state stands to lose about $1,000 ever year for the next 10 years.

This is why local officials like Schaaf and Butt are pushing hard to make sure that as many people are counted as possible, particularly people in hard-to-count communities.

Populations that the Census Bureau considers hard to count are those that traditionally have not participated in large numbers, including immigrant communities, renters, populations with limited English language skills, the unemployed and low-income households living below 150 percent of the poverty line, among others.

For example, Census Tract 4060, which encompasses the Oakland waterfront from just west of 5th Avenue to 29th Avenue and includes areas east of Laney College, ranks fairly high on the Census Bureau’s hard-to-count index.

Nearly 53 percent of people in that tract are foreign-born, 87 percent are renters, 48 percent live below 150 percent of the poverty line and nearly 32 percent possess limited English language skills, according to census data.

Currently the self-response rate for that tract is just over 50 percent.

Some areas are hard to count

In Richmond, Census Tract 3770, which includes neighborhoods east of Richmond Parkway to Espee Avenue and south of Nevin Avenue to just north of Ohio Avenue, is also considered hard to count.

More than 53 percent of adults in that tract don’t have a high school diploma, 43 percent of the population is low income, 43 percent are foreign-born and 32 percent of households are limited English speakers. The self-response rate for this tract is now about 56 percent.

The winner of the Oakland-Richmond challenge will be announced on Aug. 10.

People can fill out the census form online, call 844-330-2020 or, for Spanish speakers, call 844-468-2020.

The forms are available in 13 languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, French and Vietnamese, among others.

The deadline to self-respond to the census was pushed back to Oct. 31 from July 31 because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

On Aug. 11, the Census Bureau will send out thousands of enumerators in an effort to contact, in person, any household in the country that hasn’t yet filled out their forms.