WRITTEN BY Alejandra Saragoza
Alejandra is the managing editor of California.com. She's a California native based in the Bay Area and enjoys writing about all things food and travel related. Her work can also be seen in Diablo, T…See full bio
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While the spread of the novel coronavirus is currently dominating the news channels and media sites, there’s another major event happening this year that also deserves your attention: the 2020 Census—and it’s right around the corner.
Census Day 2020 is April 1, and in case you don’t know the U.S. Census basics or have never participated before, the census is a constitutionally mandated population count that occurs every 10 years. The U.S. Census Bureau tallies up the number of people living in the United States and five U.S. territories, recording basic information such as race, sex, and age. This data helps determine the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives, the amount of federal funding that will go toward community resources such as hospitals and fire departments, and the redrawing of voting districts, among other things.
Needless to say, census results really matter, but getting everyone to respond is no easy feat—just ask Ditas Katague, the Director of the California Complete Count – Census 2020 Office, the statewide outreach and communications campaign that helps secure a complete count of the hardest-to-count Californians. As if the usual census rumors and concerns regarding privacy weren’t already enough to prevent people from participating in the census, this year, the coronavirus outbreak is presenting another challenge as many people are hunkered down at home.
Luckily, there is a silver lining: For the first time since 1790—the inaugural year of the U.S. Census—people have the option to complete their census form online. Katague is hopeful that this new offering will help encourage more Californians to respond and ensure an accurate count of all Golden State residents.
Now leading her third decennial census, Katague spoke with California.com about the innovative work her office does to make sure every Californian is counted, the myths and rumors about the U.S. Census, and the two major reasons why every single person needs to submit the census form today.
Q: Why is it so important for Californians to complete the census?
A: I always simplify it to two major things: power and money. [The census was mandated] in the first line of our constitution because we wanted to make sure that everyone had a voice, and to do that, you gotta make sure everybody is counted. In terms of power, the data that comes out of the decennial census is used for reapportionment of those critical congressional seats, and we always want to make sure that California retains its voice in D.C. The data is also used to redistrict voting lines, which impacts everything from school boards all the way up.
In terms of money—and to put it in simple terms—every April we pay taxes, and the only way we get those federal dollars back is to fill out the census form, because the number of people living in California determines how much federal money the state gets. So if you don’t fill out the form, which only comes once a decade, does that money come back to you every year for 10 years?
It’s also about data. Decennial census data is like the gold star of data and is sacred to a lot of different people: researchers and universities use it, businesses use it to figure out where they’re going to relocate, and foundations use it to figure out how to fund the programs and the grantees in their area. So for me, because I’m a data nerd, the data is so important.
Q: How do people fill out their census questionnaire?
A: You can do it three ways. You can do it on your computer; go to my2020census.gov and fill it out—there are 9 questions and it should take you less than 10 minutes. If you don’t have access to a computer, you can call 1-800-923-8282 and be enumerated over the phone. You can also answer by paper; everyone should have received a [census] invitation in their mailbox by today. If you didn’t get the invitation or if you think you weren’t counted, go online and be counted or call and be counted. I’d rather have you contact the U.S. Census Bureau and have them tell you, “Oh, you’re already counted,” rather than you being totally missed.
Even in light of what’s going on, you can and should self-respond right now. It’s easy, it’s safe, and it’s for your community. We also encourage people to spread the word. We’re lucky to have virtual ways of connecting, so we want people to talk about the census with their friends that they’re FaceTiming or sitting around with. Make sure you’re all counted, because that’s really the way it’s going to get done.
Q: California is a difficult state to count. What is California Complete Count doing to help make sure every Californian is counted in the 2020 Census?
A: Every census is difficult, but here in California, it’s even more difficult than in the rest of the country for a number of reasons—particularly our sheer size. In fact, the City of L.A. is the hardest-to-count city and Los Angeles County is the hardest-to-count county in the hardest-to-count state. To put that in perspective, Los Angeles County’s population is larger than that of 42 other states. [The population] is also very diverse; in Los Angeles County, they speak over 190 languages. … The decennial census is only available in 13 languages. There are 59 language guides, but in terms of being able to answer online or over the phone, that skillset is limited to 12 languages, plus English.
So, we’ve taken an innovative approach to help ensure an accurate and complete count. We’ve divided the state up into more manageable chunks—or 10 regions—and engaged with community-based organizations [such as United Way of the Bay Area and California Community Foundation] that have a lot of subcontractors and access to on-the-ground partners to implement our ground campaign of trusted messengers. To support that, we have a multilingual, multimedia campaign that helps promote those messages to educate and motivate folks. This approach was very successful in 2000—we had a self-response rate that outpaced the entire country.
Q: Many are concerned about the privacy of their data. What does the government do to ensure our data is safe?
A: The U.S. Census Bureau is partnering with some of the most brilliant privacy protection companies in the U.S.—many of which are based in California—to ensure everyone’s data is safe. The data is completely private and confidential. It cannot be shared with anyone; no other federal department can get a hold of it … and we here at the state have no power or input into how the [U.S. Census Bureau] enumerates. We’re just doing what we can to support the enumeration efforts.
Q: Anything else you want California residents to know about the census?
A: I want people to think of the decennial census as a snapshot in time: On April 1, 2020, what did our country look like? What did California look like? Where were you? Who were you? It’s important to be seen and heard and recorded in this historic event that happens every 10 years. If you don’t speak up and don’t stand up to be counted—I always use my Hamilton reference, “History Has Its Eyes On You”—who will tell your story? So, don’t give up your shot. The census is an opportunity for people to not be invisible—this is your time to be counted. Tell this to 10 friends, and tell your friends and family!
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