Above: South Merced residents participate in a recent community assessment for Building Health Communities (BHC), Merced. Similar community assessment methods will soon be used by BHC partner Love, Faith and Hope as the nonprofit seeks to get accurate population data for the county’s residents. (Photo from BHC Merced via Facebook)
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — National civil rights groups and census experts are warning that residents in rural, low-income and traditionally underserved communities are at serious risk of being undercounted during the upcoming 2020 Census, potentially limiting the amount of federal funding provided over the next decade.
Funding for programs like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Section 8 and the National School Lunch Program are calculated based off population data derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial census, said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
“There’s really too much at stake to ignore the growing threat to an accurate census,” she said.
Gupta said about $600 billion is allocated annually through federal programs to states and localities based on population data collected during the census.
According to a study at George Washington University, California received more than $76.6 billion in federal funding in 2015 to support 16 federal assistance programs. The money was calculated based on data derived from the 2010 Census and a portion was used in Merced County, where it’s vital for many rural and low-income families.
Currently, the county has the second-highest participation rate in the state for the government funded Medi-Cal program, with one out of every two residents depending on the service.
Other assistance programs see similarly high participation. In 2015 alone, nearly 80 percent of Merced County school children were found to qualify for free or reduced lunch through a federal program compared to 58 percent statewide, according to research group Kidsdata.
If 2020 Census data is inaccurate, officials warn that states and localities like Merced may receive inadequate funds for their population’s needs
The best way of ensuring this doesn’t happen is to properly fund the 2020 Census, an option experts warn is quickly slipping away.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, former staff director for the House Census and Populations Subcommittee, said several factors are contributing to a “perfect storm” for the next decennial Census, including cyber security threats to new census technology, the ongoing search for a new bureau director and harsh political rhetoric eroding trust in government.
Chief among all these concerns is the inadequate funding of the Census Bureau and its operations.
Lawmakers directed the bureau to keep the 2020 Census budget under the $13 billion cap used in 2010, but then proceeded to lower the bar by limiting funding for years. Most recently, Lowenthal said, the Trump administration has requested far less money for the agency–asking Congress for $1.25 billion–than is realistic for operations.
“The window of opportunity to right this ship is closing fast,” Lowenthal said.
Already some of the Bureau’s practice counts have been cancelled, including a trial-run of Spanish-language materials and new technology in Puerto Rico. The test was was scheduled to run this year and would have been “the first time ever on the island in all Spanish-speaking materials,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund.
“We now no longer have the benefits of knowing how the in-language methods would work,” he said.
Ensuring the efficiency of Spanish-language materials would have been an important step as the Latino population is estimated to be among the fastest growing in the U.S. Officials also said having government materials in residents’ native language would have gone a long way towards easing the tension between immigrant communities and the federal government.
Vargas said the political rhetoric of the last few years has caused many immigrant communities to shy away from participating in government programs.
“We know there is increasingly a climate of fear among immigrant communities and households, many of which are mixed families that include American citizens and legal residents,” he said. “As a result, we believe it will be even more difficult to encourage immigrant communities to participate in [government] activity such as the census.”
Participation among all residents is important for an accurate count of the population, however experts warn communities of color, low-income families and rural residents are especially vulnerable to being overlooked.
If funding is inadequate, that could mean these populations are miscounted or simply left out, Vargas said.
Already, there are some alarming signs that the Census Bureau may not be properly staffed in time for the 2020 Census, he said. If money continues to be tight, the bureau may not have the funding to partner with local agencies to act as on-the-ground enumerators, meaning fewer people may be counted.
Such local partnerships were crucial for the 2010 Census, when organizations like Golden Valley Health Centers and the Central Valley Opportunity Center helped the count in the Merced area. Staff served as local enumerators, engaging with residents they had previously developed strong relationships with and gaining access to communities who may otherwise have been closed off to outsiders.
Melissa Kelly-Ortega, former chair for the City of Merced’s 2010 Complete Count Committee, said this type of local involvement from key stakeholders was crucial as it helped ensure everyone in the community was counted.
The committee attempted to count everyone in Merced but had a special focus on “hard-to-reach” demographics like non-English-speaking households.
“This was one reason it was so important to have as many committed organizations involved early and often [in the process],” she said.
Kelly-Ortega said the Complete Count Committee success was largely due to the widespread help received from local groups during the 2010 Census. However, national experts warn that the Census Bureau’s funds for local count campaigns are likely to be slashed in the coming years, severely impacting rural communities like Merced.
Local residents have some good news however, as several groups are independently looking to take a detailed count of the county’s population. This community-led count is intended to provide more accurate data for advocacy groups and nonprofits as they apply for government grants and other funding.
Loretta Spence with Merced nonprofit Love, Faith and Hope is currently working with researchers at University of California, Merced to develop survey materials for counting area residents. The survey is purely a local effort and was prompted by historical obstacles she faced in securing funding for Merced’s African-American population.
“We need to take a look and get a number for the African-American population because right now it says we’re only at 4 percent [of the Merced population],” she said. “That’s not enough to get funding for a lot of programs.”
Spence and several other community groups plan to canvass neighborhoods, collecting population data that will in turn be used to request funding for a variety of populations.
“We’re counting the African-American community, but also canvassing to get other population data at the same time,” she said.
This boots on the ground approach will hopefully provide a clear snapshot of Merced County and its residents–vital data if resources continue to be cut ahead of the 2020 Census.
“Almost unlike any other domestic program, the census is unique. It cannot wait and it cannot be delayed. The U.S. Constitution demands we take a census every 10 years,” Lowenthal said. “So even if [tests] need to be pushed off, the census must still take place.”