Gerston: Census participation is more important than ever
"1/2/11" by Heidi Ponagai is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Beginning next January, the Census Bureau will begin counting the estimated 330 million people living in the United States.  More than just an exercise undertaken by thousands of temporary bean counters, the census is critical to every state for two important reasons.

First, the census determines each state’s number of U.S. House of Representatives members. The Constitution guarantees every state at least one Representative, with the rest divided among all the states by population. Depending upon how much a state’s population has changed over the past decade relative to other states, its number of seats may grow or shrink. With 53 members — the largest of all the states — California may not gain more seats this time around because our growth, 6.2% over the last decade, approximates the national average of 6%. But state leaders certainly don’t want to lose any seats.

Second, census data is used by the federal government to distribute about $900 billion annually for public schools, health care programs, food stamps, foster care and many other programs. More populated states usually get more money than less populated states since the funds are often allocated on a per-person basis. In California, the federal commitment currently equals about $1 billion annually.

The stakes are high here and elsewhere. In California, the state loses about $2,000 a year in federal funds for every resident who is not counted in the census. That money adds up fast. For every thousand uncounted residents, the state loses $2 million federal dollars per year — and remember, that loss of funds will last the entire decade until the next decade.

In order to count as many residents as possible, Gov. Gavin Newsom has tasked Secretary of State Alex Padilla with heading the California Complete Count Committee, with the state Legislature having allocated $187 million to reach residents not easily found. That may sound like a lot, but if the state can find just 18,000 previously uncounted residents, the committee will recover the outreach allocation and more over the next decade.

Still, the task before the state’s leaders will be daunting because of several potentially mitigating factors. Education levels, language issues, ethnicity compositions and poverty pockets are among the variables that could interfere with census counting. For these reasons and others, California does not have a particularly strong record in census participation. In the 2010 census, for example, 71% of the state’s residents participated, ranking California 29th among the 50 states and one point below the national average of 72%.

Two other factors may interfere with census efforts next year. To begin with, the Census Bureau will depend on the Internet for online responses to some surveys. While online communication is not particularly onerous in Silicon Valley, it may be more challenging in other parts of the state.

The second factor, participation of undocumented residents, will be particularly critical for California. The state has roughly 2.6 million undocumented residents, far more than any other state, with more than 200,000 in Santa Clara County alone. Given the Trump administration’s continuous efforts to deport undocumented residents and the bad press about the president’s desire to ask a citizenship question (denied by the U.S. Supreme Court), undocumented residents may be sufficiently frightened to refrain from any census participation.

California officials have quite a task preparing the state for the federal census. But the stakes are too great to be passive about the census. Simply put, the more people who are counted, the better the state will fare.

Larry N. Gerston is political science professor emeritus from San Jose State University and author of California Politics and Government with Terry Christensen.

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