Outspending Every Other State On The Census, California Starts Its Own Count Too

Jan 13, 2020
Originally published on January 14, 2020 10:41 am

In California, officials are so concerned the U.S. census will undercount the state's residents this year, they want some neighborhoods counted not once, but twice — first by the U.S. Census Bureau, and then by the state government.

Starting Tuesday, California is sending out workers to knock on doors as part of a sort of mini-census the state is officially calling the California Neighborhoods Count.

The unique effort is the latest example of how some states are preparing more than others to drum up participation in the constitutionally mandated head count of every person living in the country, expected to be fully underway by mid-March.

The results come with at least a decade's worth of consequences, including each state's share of congressional seats, Electoral College votes and an estimated more than $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding.

While some states, including Texas, are not spending a single tax dollar, California lawmakers have funded a census outreach campaign with more than $187 million — the most out of any state.

Around $5 million is going to the RAND Corporation for the Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank's survey research group to conduct a small-scale count involving around 20,000 homes, a fraction of a percentage of California's 13 million households. The state selected households mostly from areas where there's been low census participation.

"We're worried that not every Californian is going to be counted in the census," says Irena Asmundson, chief economist at the California Department of Finance, which is overseeing the state's count through its demographic research unit. "We have a lot of foreign-born residents. We have people in unusual living situations, so that takes a little bit of extra outreach. And we wanted to go the extra step."

That step includes duplicating many of the Census Bureau's efforts, including canvassing neighborhoods for signs of hidden housing and visiting homes to conduct interviews about people's race, sex and other demographic information. Unlike for the U.S. census, however, taking part in California's count is not required by law, and households receive $10 for completing the survey.

California officials plan to compare their results with the federal census data next year. In the past, some states and cities have tried to challenge the U.S. census numbers with lawsuits or requests for a recount.

Asked by NPR whether California is setting itself up to challenge the census with the outcome of this state count, Asmundson says: "I have no comment. I don't think that it's going to be large enough. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Robert Bozick, a RAND demographer who's helping to lead the think tank's work for the count, acknowledges it is a "potentially politically thorny project" given the high stakes. Next year, California could lose a congressional seat for the first time in the state's history, a recent projection by the political consulting firm Election Data Services found.

Bozick also points to the complications of conducting a state count at the same time as the U.S. census.

"The ideal situation is people are visited by the Census Bureau first before we visit them," Bozick says. "That's not going to happen in all cases."

Robert Santos, vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute, sees the project as California officials "doing their due diligence" when it comes to mitigating the risk of an undercount. But Santos warns the state's efforts may ultimately do more harm than good.

"There are some populations that would be suspicious, and that's going to cause problems," Santos adds.

With so much distrust in the government, especially among immigrants and communities of color, Santos says he's worried the state sending out its own door knockers may keep more people away from any count.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

April 1 is our census day. Ahead of the national headcount, some states are doing more preparation than others to encourage all residents to take part. California is spending close to $190 million. That's more than any other state. Starting today, it will send out workers to take a sort of mini census. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has the story.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: California officials are so worried that the 2020 census will miss enough residents in this state, they want some neighborhoods counted not once but twice - first by the U.S. Census Bureau and then by the state government.

BEVERLY WEIDMER: OK, so this is actually our block.

WANG: Beverly Weidmer is a director in the RAND Corporation Survey Research Group. The think tank has been contracted to conduct what the state is officially calling the California Neighborhoods Count. It's expected to include around 20,000 homes in areas where census participation has been low.

WEIDMER: Here you have one house number, 917.

WANG: Beverly Weidmer recently led me around a block of homes in Santa Monica where workers were trained to look for hidden housing.

WEIDMER: But you have three doors.

WANG: Oh, there's two doors right next to it.

WEIDMER: Right next to it.

WANG: This kind of detective work involves walking around neighborhoods and knocking on doors to make sure no home is overlooked for this sort of mini census.

WEIDMER: But there's clues, you know, like window air conditioning units, mailboxes. Walk through the alley, and you can look at the number of parking spaces in the back.

WANG: It's all part of California's unique focus on the 2020 census. And it's a stark contrast to other states, including Texas, that aren't spending a single tax dollar. Irena Asmundson is the chief economist at the California Department of Finance, which is overseeing the state's count.

IRENA ASMUNDSON: We have a lot of foreign-born residents. We have people in unusual living situations. So that takes a little bit of extra outreach. And we wanted to go the extra step.

WANG: That step includes going back, starting this spring, to certain neighborhoods to ask the same kind of questions the U.S. Census Bureau plans to ask, including how many people are living in a home, plus their race, sex and other demographic information. California officials plan to compare their results with the census data the Federal Government is set to release next year. In the past, some states and cities have tried to challenge the U.S. census numbers with lawsuits or requests for a recount. As for whether California is setting itself up for a lawsuit after the 2020 census, Irina Asmundson says...

ASMUNDSON: I have no comment. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

WANG: There is a lot hanging on getting an accurate count. Census numbers help determine each state's share of more than $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for Medicare, schools and roads. Plus, a recent projection found that for the first time, California is highly likely to lose a seat in Congress. But Robert Santos, the Urban Institute's vice president and chief methodologist, warns that California conducting its own count at the same time as the U.S. census may do more harm than good.

ROBERT SANTOS: There are some populations that would be suspicious, and that's going to cause problems.

WANG: Santos says sending more door knockers to people's homes may depress census participation.

SANTOS: There's always a worry that there will be confusion with people as to the nature of the person knocking on the door.

KARLA BLACKWOOD: To have someone come to your door, you don't know like, is this for real? Is this fake? Like, what's going on? You know, definitely be some inquisitive people wondering if this is legit or not.

WANG: Karla Blackwood (ph) lives near one of the neighborhoods in Los Angeles the state selected for its count. Blackwood says she would rather see the project's funding go towards directly addressing LA's homelessness problem.

BLACKWOOD: You want to believe in this beautiful nation that we live in. But, sometimes, we turn on news everyday - you're a little discouraged. And you're a little like, is anyone really looking out for me? You know, OK, I'll do this, and then what?

WANG: Michael Collins' (ph) block was selected for the California Neighborhoods Count. Collins says he hasn't ruled out filling out a census form, but...

MICHAEL COLLINS: (Laughter) Wasn't even on my radar...

WANG: Yeah

COLLINS: ...Not in the least bit.

WANG: There will be online forms for both the U.S. census and California's count. But while he's watering his lawn before driving his wife to work, Collins says that option probably won't be for him.

COLLINS: I mean, you know, it sounds very convenient. But forget it. I got a few things I need to be doing online. I haven't done it yet (laughter).

WANG: Collins says whether it's the federal government or the state, if they want him counted this year, someone is going to have to knock on his door. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.