Census Response Rates In Wealthy West LA Areas Are Weirdly Low — And No One Knows Why
If you look at a map of responses to the 2020 Census in Los Angeles County, two things will probably jump out.
First, you'd see a big concentration of low response rates, color-coded orange, in South Central and Southeast L.A. This was predictable. That region is considered one of the hardest to count in the country. Many residents of these areas don't have internet access — a particular challenge with the first primarily online census.
If you keep looking at the map, you'll notice another strip of orange low response rates, stretching from Beverly Hills, along the coast, all the way up to Malibu.
This is very unusual. Because according to the California Complete Count office, the region was supposed to be a fairly easy place to count. On an index measuring hardest to count tracts ranging from 0-133 (0 being easiest, 133 hardest), most of those West L.A. tracts got a score around 20, while most tracts in Southeast L.A. are pushing 100.
Two months into the 2020 Census, some tracts in West L.A. are still only at 25% of households responding — far behind the county as a whole, currently at 56%.
For comparison, during the 2010 census, 70% of households in those same Westside tracts turned in their forms. While the pandemic has altered this year's timeline, that's about the rate that had been expected for this year.
It raises the question: Why isn't West L.A. responding like usual?
LAist talked to Westside representatives, residents and Census Bureau officials to get to the bottom of this.
'COME ON WESTSIDE, GET WITH IT'
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who represents West L.A., was surprised to see her constituents responding to the census behind the rest of the county.
"I don't want the Westside to be considered a bunch of losers," she said.
Kuehl acknowledged that COVID-19 is a big distraction, and suggested that people might just be too busy to fill out their information.
"I think there's a kind of a Maslowian hierarchy about what is important to you at the moment," Kuehl said. "We're all so focused on all of the extra things we have to do and think about because of this pandemic."
Still, other parts of Los Angeles are responding to the census at higher rates despite the coronavirus hitting their communities as well (and in some cases, harder).
Another possible explanation Kuehl brought up is UCLA's transition to remote learning. Students usually living on and off-campus may not be there anymore.
"That's almost 50,000 students," she said. "Many of them — because school's out — let their apartments go and they moved back home. They've done a lot of shifting around."
Plus, those off-campus students might not realize the Census Bureau wants them to fill out a census form corresponding with their school address.
To count students living on-campus, the Census Bureau would usually do a "Group Quarters" count, working with university administrators, and in some cases, conducting in-person interviews. This year that process was delayed, and now the bureau will receive student information directly from the university.
The same issue of missing students could also apply to the Malibu area, where Pepperdine students living on-campus were told to leave their dorms.
But there's still the question of residential census tracts in Bel Air and Western Malibu, where the population skews older than college-aged.
Kuehl admitted she doesn't know what's going on with those constituents, but she has a message for them nonetheless:
"Come on, Westside, get with it — do your census form!"
WHERE DID ALL THE PEOPLE GO?
The Census Bureau office of Los Angeles is working with community and government organizations to target residents in West L.A. and encourage census participation.
Bureau spokesperson Patricia Ramos said one clue about the low response rates in these areas might have to do with residents who own a second home.
"Possibly a lot of the residents who have responded so far, they might live in the city of Malibu full time, for example, while another fraction of the residents, that might not be the case," Ramos said.
Even if people are living in another home, they still need to be accountable for their local residence. According to Ramos, census takers will eventually stop by that house to collect a response, and to preempt that, respondents should mark whether or not they live in that household full-time on Question 1 of the census form.
CENSUS FORM EXPLAINED: What's on the form and why
Those responses will determine local funding for the next decade, and if West L.A. residents aren't counted, local schools, hospitals and streets could all pay the price. Ramos said imagine, for example, if the city needs to decide which roads to repave.
"They need to know how many people live in a particular area, and how heavy the usage is going to be — be it a little road in Bel Air, or a main thoroughfare that goes from the Westside all the way to the Valley, an example is Beverly Glen," Ramos said. "They're arteries."
Ramos said, if you live in this area and know your neighbor isn't in town, you should call or email them to get them to do their form. At LAist, we wondered, if a lot of people aren't home, is it possible they left the area to avoid COVID-19, like what happened in New York City?
Robin Greenberg, President of the Bel Air and Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council doesn't believe that theory.
"No, I don't think anybody is traveling. I think everybody is walking on our street — we see everybody walking all day long," Greenberg said. "They're home. There's nowhere to go."
Greenberg said her husband has completed their household's census form, but besides talking with him about it, she hasn't discussed the census with anyone else. She figured her neighbours would understand the importance of the census and fill it out.
"I just don't know what it would be, honestly. There's nothing I could attribute it to," Greenberg said.