'It's Our Money — We Need To Claim It': Census Uses Caravans To Spread The Word

Atra Flemons in her decorated SUV at South L.A.'s University Park. (Caitlin Hernandez/LAist)

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Census workers have had to get creative as they struggle to increase low response rates in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. That's how almost two dozen caravans adorned with balloons and signs ended up rolling through the streets of L.A. County one day last week as part of the National Census Day of Action.

Drivers honked car horns, blasted air horns and talked with passersby about the 2020 Census, in partnership with WeCountLA, a grassroots coalition working to reach the county's historically undercounted communities.

In South L.A.'s University Park — an area that's been slow to respond to the census — organizers reminded residents that the census is a way to influence government and funding for the next 10 years, especially in light of the recent protests against racism and police brutality.

"We're always fighting for equity," said Kirk Samuels, director of civic engagement for the South L.A.-based Community Coalition and an organizer in University Park.

"When you look at the state of the culture in society right now, with all the protests that's going on, we need some real tangible answers and real tangible benefits and resources for our folks," he said.

Samuels acknowledged that many people are still intimidated by the census. That's why direct outreach and dialogue with community members was also a central part of the day. Working in tandem with the caravan, street teams went door to door in neighborhoods to pass out fliers to residents and business owners aimed at starting conversations on redistricting, community funding and representation.

Not far away in Huntington Park, organizers took a different approach by kicking off their caravan ride with a performance from Mariachi Latino.

Farther south in Long Beach, organizers passed out T-shirts and drawstring bags to residents — using a grabber tool to keep a distance.

The caravan in Long Beach. (Caitlin Hernandez/LAist)

The event came as L.A. County's census response rate continues to be lower in historically undercounted areas such as downtown and South L.A., and even in some unexpected places, like wealthy West L.A.

There is more time for organizers to work on driving up response rates: The government has extended the self-response deadline to Oct. 31 in response to the pandemic.

For residents like Atra Flemons, an organizer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the reason to continue getting the word out about the census is simple.

"Because it's our money — we need to claim it," Flemons said.

SO WHAT'S LA'S RESPONSE RATE NOW?

Overall, the L.A. County self-response rate stands at 58% — five points lower than California's current rate, according to the 2020 Census response map.

Some West L.A. residents are still weirdly behind in responding, with Malibu at 36% and certain Bel Air neighborhoods as low as 27%.

Areas at risk for an undercount — both historically and for this census — include most of South L.A. (currently below 50%) and downtown, with response numbers as low as 13%. In the San Fernando Valley, response rates are generally higher, but neighborhoods like Pacoima, Sunland-Tujunga and North Hollywood are still below 50%.

Residents can respond to the census by phone, internet or mail. If they don't respond by Oct. 31, enumerators eventually will show up at their front door.