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A Controversial Census Is Fast Approaching. One Small City Thinks It Has the Answer

May 17, 2019
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A Controversial Census Is Fast Approaching. One Small City Thinks It Has the Answer
FUSE executive fellow Salem Afeworki led a workshop highlighting the importance of proactive census planning and early identification of trusted messengers to ensure an accurate count at a Long Beach Census 2020 workshop. Photo courtesy of FUSE Corps

As the 2020 census approaches, Long Beach, California, is preparing for a complicated counting process: a first-ever online questionnaire, an already contentious political environment, and a pending question about citizenship that could adversely impact participation from immigrants and undocumented people, groups that historically are already less responsive.  

The city boasts a diverse population — more than 47 percent of residents speak a non-English language and about 13 percent are not citizens — and city leaders want to take steps to ensure every resident is counted in 2020. To oversee these efforts, last fall the city brought on FUSE executive fellow Salem Afeworki. “Some people just don’t trust government agencies given the political environment we’re in now,” Afeworki said. “And some people don’t want to fill out their personal information online because they’re not sure how the data will be used. We have to find ways to help people feel comfortable and safe about participating.”

Getting an accurate count is critical for the city, said Kevin Jackson, deputy city manager of Long Beach. Census figures determine a state’s number of seats in the House of Representatives and can have an impact on receiving as much as $675 billion in federal grants each year. “There are many population-based grants that relate to transportation, health and human services, community development and other activities,” Jackson said. “If the count is inaccurate, we could lose funding.”

Indeed, this was a problem for California, which lost federal funds after the 2010 census. In response, the state has invested $100 million, with another $54 million proposed as part of the 2019-2020 governor’s budget, to educate and convince California residents to complete 2020 census questionnaires.

Bring the Community in Early

For many urban areas like Long Beach, the census process begins two years before those forms are distributed, when the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) is conducted to confirm residential addresses. These are then shared with the Census Bureau, which uses the addresses to contact residents. “The tricky part is that there are people who live in garages, or in their cars in parking lots, or in other types of unconventional housing,” Afeworki said.

People experiencing homelessness are one of the harder-to-count groups that the census can miss. Another is renters, who sometimes think — mistakenly — that the building’s owner is the only one who should be counted. Also included are children under age 5, low-income residents, people who don’t speak English and people with disabilities. Additionally, residents with noncitizen status, such as immigrants and undocumented people, are often undercounted.

Long Beach has a population of roughly 475,000 and is part of Los Angeles County, considered the hardest-to-count county in the United States. Long Beach has the second highest population of hard-to-count residents in the County (5.9 percent), with the City of Los Angeles ranking first (50.59 percent), Afeworki explained. To help identify as many people as possible for the LUCA process, Long Beach hired community organizations familiar with neighborhoods and its residents.

Now the city is focusing on the next phase of census preparation, which includes developing a strategic action plan, messaging and testing to determine the best ways to communicate with hard-to-count groups. Afeworki has been studying past census efforts in other cities for ideas on improving and enhancing the process in Long Beach. For example, the City of Los Angeles is currently designing a Goodwill Ambassador’s Program, which recruits volunteers with diverse backgrounds to aid census canvassing and educational efforts. Los Angeles is exploring ways to involve members of the hard-to-count community as volunteers, an idea that could be equally useful in Long Beach. “They can serve as trusted messengers and provide non-English language assistance,” Afeworki said.

She has also been meeting with a variety of stakeholders and this spring plans to launch the Long Beach Complete Count Committee, a coalition of local government officials and community organizations, such as NALEO, which is devoted to mobilizing the Latino community to participate in the census. The goal is for committee members to collaboratively create community engagement practices specific to Long Beach, mobilize resources and share ideas about how to convince people that completing the census will be safe and beneficial to them and their communities. For example, Afeworki believes that it will be important to provide up-to-date and accurate information on data security and privacy, especially for undocumented and immigrant groups.

Long Beach Census
Long Beach wants to ensure that every resident is counted in the upcoming 2020 Census count.Photo by Joseph Voves.

In previous stakeholder meetings, Afeworki learned that schools and healthcare facilities tend to be trusted in communities, so she’s working to engage these establishments as well. Libraries can play a role in educating residents about what the community would gain if they complete the census, too. Also, Long Beach has worked for several years to build its in-house translation and interpretation services in Spanish, Tagalog and Khmer (the most common, non-English languages in the city), and Afeworki expects to draw on that expertise to address language barriers as the census begins.

The Challenges of Going Digital

Perhaps the biggest change to the upcoming census is that it will be largely conducted online, a move motivated in part by federal budget restrictions. For Long Beach residents who don’t speak English, providing a form in their native language should be more easily facilitated with the digital format, noted Afeworki. However, the challenge becomes reaching people without digital access, whether that is no computer or smartphone, or a limited data plan or no home wifi. In response, Los Angeles County and Long Beach are working to establish Census Action Kiosks around the city that residents can use to fill out census questionnaires. Most kiosks will use existing computers located at public facilities such as libraries, job centers and community organizations.

The Census Bureau also announced that due to budget cuts it will hire fewer “enumerators,” or census takers, the people who are sent out if a person at a given address fails to respond after three contacts. As such, there won’t be as many federal employees to visit nonresponders and help them complete their forms. “That means local government has to play a big role in filling that gap,” Afeworki said.

Long Beach plans to leverage its resources with state funding to mobilize a local complete count committee and work with community-based organizations and other members of the community to address any outreach gaps. A personal connection is important, given that “the government doesn’t tend to be the most trusted messenger to these communities,” Jackson said. Many people also worry about how their data will be used. So outreach employees will be trained to talk about data security with residents, ensuring them that their information is not shared outside of the census and used solely for its purposes.

If the proposed question about citizenship status is included in the upcoming census, engaging the community to gain trust will become even more vital, noted Jackson. States with large immigrant populations, including California, sued to have the question removed from the census, as critics said it will dissuade immigrants and others from participating. The Supreme Court is currently weighing the issue and is expected to decide this spring if the question can be included in 2020.

“We’re trying to plan for that and make sure that we have trusted messengers out in the community helping people understand that they’re not at risk, and that it’s actually essential that they participate,” Jackson said. “I can’t predict what’s going to happen, but we’re hopeful that with all the planning and engaging the community, we’re going to be successful.”  

Afeworki said she now sees the census efforts as similar to those for an election — mobilizing residents to act, whether to vote or fill out a form, in a specific time frame. Collaboration on many levels, she noted, will be key. “Honestly, the census is harder than an election,” Afeworki said. “At least in an election, you’re typically targeting U.S. citizens above a certain age. With a census, a baby who was born yesterday needs to be counted. All residents are counted, and there’s no one agency or entity that can do this alone and be successful.”

Erin O’Donnell is a freelance writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This story was produced by FUSE Corps, a national executive fellowship program that partners with local government agencies and produces solutions-driven journalism.

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