How Census officials are reaching San Jose’s hard-to-count neighborhoods
Lisset Mendez, a youth leader with SIREN, in November knocks on doors in East San Jose to educate residents about the Census 2020 survey. Photo courtesy of SIREN.

In its 118-year history, the U.S. Census Bureau has struggled to get a complete and accurate count of the people living in this country.

And from Alviso to Gilroy, Santa Clara County is chock-full of some of the most difficult-to-count populations — including recent immigrants, homeless and low-income individuals, and students and seniors.

Add to that the fact that Donald Trump is in the White House, plus a long-standing suspicion that census data will be used against people who answer the survey, and the job of getting an accurate count becomes even more difficult. To address those challenges in 2020, the Census Bureau has built a network of partnerships with local governments, institutions and service organizations in the South Bay to help promote participation in the survey.

For example, Santa Clara County will have digital census kiosks in nearly every public building, including libraries and hospitals, along with trained staff to help with answering the 10-question survey. Similar census assistance centers will also crop up at city buildings.

“There has never been a local effort like this before,” said Nick Kuwada, program manager for Santa Clara County’s Office of the Census, which was created in 2018 by the Board of Supervisors.

The community partnerships go beyond government-to-government relationships to include trusted service organizations. The government counts have taken place since 1790.

Some South Bay census partners that received grants — including SOMOS Mayfair in East San Jose, and Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network (SIREN) which has member organizations in three Bay Area counties — work specifically with immigrant communities, who are among the most-difficult-to-count populations.

SOMOS Mayfair and the Si Se Puede! collective have plans to roll out a census education program called Power not Fear. The focus of the initiative will be to address people’s apprehension and suspicion about the government, and encourage them to weigh those emotions against the positive impact that answering the census will have “on our families, our neighbors and our community,” said Chelsey Prewitt, a spokeswoman for the organization.

“We want answering the census to be something we can get excited about,” Prewitt said. “It is more than just filling out a survey, it is an important act of civic engagement that we can use to build power in our community in East San Jose.”

Vilcia Rodriguez, the program manager for San Jose’s Census 2020 office, says that’s the perfect message for community partners to take to the people they serve.

“Not everyone can vote,” Rodriguez said. “But everyone can be counted in the census, and in some ways that is more important because it affects the federal funding that we can get for the next 10 years.”

Hard-to-count areas plague San Jose

In an effort to boost survey participation, Census officials unveiled the Response Outreach Area Mapper (ROAM), a data visualization tool that predicts which census tracts are most likely to be under-counted.

Those hard-to-count neighborhoods are sprinkled throughout the city, the map shows, but mostly concentrated on the city’s South and East sides.

The Mayfair neighborhood in East San Jose, for example, is considered under-counted. The area has 5,230 residents, more than 76 percent of whom are Hispanic. The next largest group by race is Asian, more than 16 percent, including Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipino nationalities, the data show.

The data also show that more than 42 percent of residents were born in another country, and nearly 18 percent of households don’t include a family member older than 14 who speaks English.

But to reach those hard-to-count populations, census advocates have a monumental task ahead. That’s why SIREN will be mounting a massive door knocking campaign across the Bay Area including in Morgan Hill, Mountain View, the Seven Trees neighborhood in South San Jose and the Mayfair neighborhood.

“There is too much at stake,” said Jeremy Barousse, SIREN’s director of civic engagement. “An accurate and fair count means billions in federal funding for core services that immigrant families could use.”

Meanwhile, another local census partner serves a different group of hard to count individuals. LifeMoves is a network of shelters that provide interim housing and supportive services for up to 850 homeless individuals every day.

“They are under-served people with real needs,” said LifeMoves Chief Development Officer Katherine Finnegan. “They must be counted because federal resources are allocated according to the census, and we only get to do it every 10 years.”

Fear in immigrant communities

In 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Trump’s commerce department could not ask about citizenship on the 2020 census. But the damage done by media-fueled furor surrounding Trump’s push to add the question won’t be easy to undo, organizers said.

“People are fearful of the federal government,” Kuwada said. “And that plays a larger role in the 2020 census than ever before.”

What’s at stake

The data collected by the Census Bureau are critical in ensuring the county receives sufficient federal funding for critical social services. An undercount could lead to a loss of millions of dollars for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, Section 8 vouchers and more, as well as a loss of political power if the region loses a congressional seat as it did in 1990.

The county reports that $76 billion a year are at stake for California alone. Santa Clara County could stand to lose $2,000 per year in federal funding for every person who is not counted.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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