Census workers push on in Santa Clara County despite challenges
Santa Clara County's 2020 Census Program staff and volunteers stepped up to help people complete their census surveys. Photo courtesy of Nick Kuwada.

A hearing by a federal judge in San Jose on when the U.S. Census count will end was met with another delay.

Due to COVID-19 and other challenges, only four states reported 99% of housing enumerations completed, according to testimony at a hearing Sept. 22 before U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose.

Concerned with having enough time to compile the data by December, the Census Bureau requested an extension but was denied by the Senate. In response, the Census Bureau pushed the end date back from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30.

However, Koh objected. She upheld a temporary restraining order — requested by a coalition of cities, counties and civil rights groups — which argued the earlier deadline would cause the Census Bureau to overlook minority communities, leading to an inaccurate count.

Koh sued the Census Bureau and demanded it extend the census to the end of October so Congress would be fairly apportioned and federal funds be distributed accurately. The next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 28.

Meanwhile, census workers in the South Bay continued to knock on doors amid fear of COVID-19, extreme heat and unhealthy air quality. 

Misleading census-related information from the White House added to the uncertainty.

“It’s indicative of how things have been running this year,” said Nick Kuwada, manager of Santa Clara County’s 2020 Census Program.

“We did in-depth training for our staff on safety, especially regarding COVID-19,” said Vilcia Rodriguez, 2020 census project manager for San Jose. “Safety has been our No. 1 priority.”

Canvassers received N95 face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant. They were trained in safety protocols, including how to deal with dogs and people who didn’t want to talk with them.

The pandemic and smoke from wildfires prevented county census workers from holding large gatherings and limited the days they could knock on doors.

“First and foremost, we want everyone to be safe,” Kuwada said. “We don’t want workers to be out there when the air quality is terrible.”

Volunteers are trained and given personal protective equipment including masks, face shields, gloves and identifying T-shirts. Workers follow safety protocols and maintain social distance when engaging with neighbors and iPads used for completing surveys are wiped down after every use.

Kuwada said combating fear and correcting misinformation is the reason the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors created his office. Kuwada said Santa Clara County invested $7 million in social media, field canvassing plans, grants to community-based organizations and research into how to ensure people understand their information is protected.

“A lot of people…have been fearful of being known by the federal government,” he said. “They think, ‘If I put my information out there, they’ll come for me,’ but Title 13, which is a federal law, protects all information taken by the U.S. Census Bureau. Census employees who break that rule can face fines or even jail time.”

Kuwada said his office is helping people fill out the census as every person counts. About $500 million in federal funds comes to the county every year for education and health care.

As mandated by the Constitution, every 10 years, everyone living in the United States is required to be counted for the U.S. Census. Population data determines representation in the House of Representatives and impacts federal funding and community planning for schools, hospitals, fire departments, roads and safety net programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Section 8 housing.

“About $1.5 trillion in annual spending is allocated based on populations,” said Kuwada. “Once every 10 years, you’re given the opportunity to say, ‘This is where I live. This is where my fair share should go, so I can make my community better.’”

Workers from the county’s census program staffed kiosks at COVID-19 testing sites and canvassed neighborhoods.

Together, as of Sept. 22, the county and city have knocked on 67,342 doors and helped complete 2,243 census forms.

SOMOS Mayfair, an East San Jose nonprofit organization, has rallied communities in a “Power Not Fear” campaign. They have had success helping people complete the census through knocking on doors, social media and collaboration with community partners

“Some folks are tentative to complete the census because they fear it will jeopardize their family or immigration status,” said Chelsey Prewitt, marketing and communications associate with SOMOS Mayfair. “That’s why we’ve emphasized education in this campaign, so we can reassure families that the census is a safe way to build power and reclaim resources.”

A canvasser who didn’t want to give her name because workers are not allowed to speak with the press shared some of the challenges she faced, from being yelled at to people refusing to open their doors. She said the poor air quality and heat were draining.

“I had a supervisor who didn’t force us to go out and advised us about air quality,” she said, “but there were days it was 107 degrees and the sky was bright orange.”

COVID-19 is also a concern as many people who opened their doors didn’t wear masks. Still, she said increasing participation in the census is worth the hardships.

“Every homeless person, person of color, child and senior needs to be counted because demographics affect redistricting,” she said.

Rodriguez, who said her office is targeting low-response areas, said fear, apathy and confusion have affected accurate census numbers.

“The federal government proposed adding a citizenship question to the census survey,” Rodriguez said. “It was blocked by the Supreme Court but created confusion and fear. We visit homes with households of 15 to 20 people. If we weren’t doing this grassroots efforts, we’d be missing these people.”

To help garner community trust, volunteers speaking their language reach out to them, Rodriguez said. Volunteers  are distributing census information at food distribution and COVID-19 testing sites.

Rodriguez said COVID-19 and smoke from the wildfires put some of their activities on hold but face-to-face canvassing is paying off.

“We’re seeing the results,” she said. “The census tracts are increasing 2% to 4% in response. We know these grassroots efforts are effective. We just wish we had time to do more.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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