With the Trump Administration prevailing in ending the census count early, Santa Clara County officials say they’re not sure if everyone who needed to be counted actually was.
And that could have serious and far-reaching impacts for years to come, they say.
“Because the census has been cut short, we believe we’re not going to get a full, fair, accurate count,” said Anne Im, immigration program officer for Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “Data will be compromised … and hard-to-count communities are going to be missed. It’s going to be even more devastating for our communities that really need these resources, especially during this pandemic.”
While most households respond to the census, the Census Bureau engages in Non-Response Follow-Up (NRFU) visits for households that don’t. This population largely includes racial and ethnic minorities, non-English speakers, undocumented immigrants, persons who distrust the government, low-income persons and the homeless.
The bureau extended the census deadline from late July to October 31 due to COVID-19. When federal officials changed the end date to Sept. 30, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh sued the Trump Administration, demanding a return to the original deadline. But the Supreme Court granted the request and the count ended Oct. 15.
Mayor Sam Liccardo, who was a signatory on the lawsuit to extend the census, said the ruling is “justice denied” and inline with the Trump Administration’s efforts to do “everything but ensure a a full and fair census count.”
An inaccurate census count could result in huge losses for Santa Clara County, which receives about $500 million annually in census-based funding. Census results also determine how much the county receives of $675 billion in federal funding for services like health, housing, transportation, education and child services.
“If we get the count wrong, that’s money hemorrhaging from our county for Title I school programs, Section 8 housing, Medicare and roads,” said Nick Kuwada, manager for the County of Santa Clara Office of the Census, created by the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors to combat misinformation from the White House. “Even businesses … and emergency relief efforts are based on census data. The implications are long-lasting.”
Local government decisions on housing development, law enforcement, school construction and public services are also informed by the census. The Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office relies on census data to understand racial disparities and develop policies addressing areas highly impacted by crime and criminal prosecution.
A low-balled census count could also cost California representation in Congress.
“We could lose political power in a very divided Congress if we don’t get a full count,” Kuwada said. “States like California are primed to lose a seat with an undercount.”
The Census Bureau is obligated to reach a 99.9% completion rate. Kuwada said he is concerned the bureau may have rushed to say a household was vacant without checking the six times it is required to. Kuwada also is upset the Census Bureau did not share its non-response data with the county.
Sonny Le, partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau, said his office completed counting Santa Clara County’s NRFUs.
“The date change may have complicated things for our partners but we were on target to finish the job and we closed down when we got to that point,” Le said. “We get to 99.9% completion when we have a count for the housing units. We had a fixed number of households or addresses that we followed up. When we finished that, that is considered a job done.”
If census takers knock on doors and can’t reach people who haven’t filled out their census forms, they use proxy data, asking neighbors for information about a household, or look at past records.
Im said asking a neighbor for information isn’t the best and most accurate data, and looking at administration records and making a best guess about how many people live in a home can be misleading.
“Santa Clara County and this region has such high housing costs,” Im said. “We know there …may be two or three families living in one household. There are many … living in overcrowded homes I sense will be missed.”
Kuwada had similar concerns.
“None of the non-response data was shared with us so we literally do not know who was missed. That’s the scary thing. We don’t know how many people were actually counted or how many addresses were marked as vacant because the Census Bureau couldn’t get a hold of someone. Normally, the census bureau does up to six contacts for an individual who doesn’t respond. We were getting reports that it was maybe two.”
Le said his staff was instructed to follow up with every housing unit up to six times.
Kuwada expressed frustration with the decreased timeline, which he contends was politically motivated.
“For you to take this away from our people, to take it away from the hardest-hit communities who are experiencing COVID-19… I think it is a politically motivated plan to disenfranchise as many people as possible all in the efforts of making sure on Dec. 31 the president gets these numbers so he can exclude undocumented individuals, which is wholly unconstitutional,” Kuwada said.
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]