An Already Shortened Census May End Some In-Person Counting Even Earlier

A decorated census van at City Hall in Huntington Park, Calif. on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (Caitlin Hernandez/LAist)

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The schedule for the 2020 Census has jumped all over the place this year. If you're confused, you're not alone. We could all use a brief recap.

In March — perhaps a more optimistic time, in the early days of the pandemic — most census outreach initially was only delayed by a couple of weeks. The Census Bureau still intended to close the response period for the count on July 31, a deadline the agency had planned for years.

By April, the dire reality of the pandemic set in, and the Census Bureau proposed a more drastic deadline extension of 4 months. The agency decided the July deadline for responses wasn't looking doable, and needed to shift it four months out, to Oct. 31.

But that wasn't the only date that needed changing. Census Bureau leaders admitted they couldn't crunch census data in time to determine each state's number of representatives in Congress. The Bureau asked federal lawmakers to change that constitutionally-mandated deadline from December 31, 2020 to April 30, 2021, but this was never approved.

Despite this, the Census Bureau still planned to finish counting Americans by Oct. 31 — the agency didn't need politicians' approval to make that change.

Then in early August, the census schedule abruptly shifted. Instead of closing the count at the end of October, as the agency had by now planned and publicized for months, the Census Bureau suddenly moved the deadline earlier, to Sept. 30. There was no official explanation given for this change.

That abrupt change has not gone without legal challenges. Several cities, including Los Angeles, along with census advocates, have sued the Trump administration seeking to force the Census Bureau back to the Oct. 31 deadline.

While these lawsuits are pending, the current deadline remains Sept. 30.

Which means there's less than a month to go until the self-response period for the 2020 Census is closed.

It also means there's less than a month for census workers and advocates to reach hard-to-count communities in person — and less than a month to make sure that the 44% of households in the city of Los Angeles that didn't fill out census forms on their own are counted.

SHORT CENSUS LOOKING SHORTER

Recently, the census bureau announced a new change: in some parts of the country, in-person census work like door-knocking will end even earlier than the new early deadline.

During a Zoom call last month with San Diego leaders, Roberto Garcia, a U.S. Census partnership specialist based in San Diego, said census enumeration there and in surrounding cities is set to wrap up by September 18th.

"We hope all of our workload will be complete and there will not be any more enumerators out on the street," Garcia said during the recorded meeting.

The federal government has since tempered Garcia's announcement. Associate Director of Field Operations Tim Olson said in a statement:

"This has been totally misconstrued, and it is not accurate to say that the 'schedule' is shorter for any area census office, including San Diego. Non-response Follow-up continues until we are finished."

However, Census spokesperson Donald Bendz did confirm to LAist that some census offices may finish in-person work early. Census takers could then be sent to different regions of the state that need more in-person support.

He couldn't say if this would affect L.A. County. According to a Census Bureau map tracking the completion of regional door knocking, all the census offices in Los Angeles County are more than 50% finished.

As of last month, there were census tracts where the self-response rate was below 40%; the bureau does not have tract-level completion data that takes into account the work of enumerators, who began knocking on doors locally the second week of August.

Here are the most recent estimates of response rates from the Census Bureau for each of these area census offices, whose jurisdiction includes surrounding communities:

  • West Covina - 83.9%
  • Pasadena - 80.3%
  • Woodland Hills - 80.3%
  • Santa Clarita - 76.1%
  • Long Beach - 73.6%
  • South Gate - 69%
  • Inglewood - 67.3%

Keep in mind that the top response rates elsewhere are much higher. Idaho, a state with a population estimated to be about 1.7 million in 2018, currently has the highest response in the nation rate at 97.2%. California, with more than 39 million residents, has a response rate of 88.1%.

Thomas Saenz, President of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), said he was surprised to hear that the Census Bureau could finish the count ahead of schedule, considering the agency previously said it would need until the end of October to do a complete job.

"To now assert that somehow miraculously that everything's being completed more than a month ahead of time, seems a little hard to believe," Saenz said.

This week, MALDEF asked a U.S. District Court judge for a temporary restraining order to force the agency back to the Oct. 31 deadline. Saenz said he hopes to receive a response from the court in the next two weeks, before Census offices start winding down operations.

EXTRA OUTREACH MONEY FROM CALIFORNIA

With time running out on the 2020 count, the California Complete Count census office — affiliated with the state, not the Census Bureau — is dedicating $10 million for additional outreach in hopes of avoiding a severe undercount.

The money is left over from $187 million that the state legislature allocated for census outreach, in part, to preserve California's political clout (the state is at risk of losing seats in Congress for the first time in history, based on census data). Because so many in-person census events were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the state didn't use all of that funding.

Of the $10 million coming from the state, $4 million will go to help count over 500 hard-to-reach census tracts in L.A. County. The money has been distributed to local community partners like Proyecto Pastoral, a civic engagement and education non-profit doing on-the-ground census outreach in Boyle Heights.

Ditas Katague, director of California Complete Count, said the extra funding is meant to encourage those census advocates to stick out the campaign to the end.

"These partners are stretched thin....We couldn't have planned for a pandemic. We couldn't have planned to have to pivot so much" Katague said. "But we're heartened by the fact that our partners that are staying around are very committed to getting those numbers up."