Census Explained: Why The Census Matters In LA

A man wearing a facemask walks past a sign encouraging people to complete the 2020 US Census, in Los Angeles, California, August 10, 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The result of the census directly affects the amount of funding a community receives for services including public schools, hospitals and fire departments. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

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What's at stake for Southern California in the 2020 Census? Billions of dollars in federal funding for programs like Medi-Cal, for public education, even disaster planning. Political representation in Sacramento and D.C. A census undercount could cut critical resources in L.A. County, home to the largest hard-to-count population in the nation. Fill out your census questionnaire online on the 2020 Census website.


UPDATE: U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction Thursday night ordering that the 2020 Census count continue through Oct. 31, as had been planned before the Trump administration recently moved the deadline up by a month. The administration appealed the decision on Friday.


The 2020 Census has faced unprecedented challenges. By the time U.S. households began receiving census information in the mail last March, the coronavirus pandemic was sweeping across the nation, suspending count operations and creating delays.

The schedule for the census changed, then changed again — all creating confusion as to how long the count is to continue.

The once-in-a-decade population count was suddenly cut short last month by the Trump Administration, a move that dismayed Census Bureau officials, census advocates, and local leaders who agree that a shortened census would be less accurate. Hard-to-count residents, who make up about half of L.A. County's population, have the most to lose in terms of money and political power.

The City of Los Angeles, along with nonprofits and other local governments, sued to force the federal government to keep the census count going through the end of October, as was planned before the Trump Administration moved it up to Sept. 30.

Here's how we got here, and what it means for Los Angeles.

Carolina Ortiz, a patient of AltaMed, works with Estuardo Ardon to fill out her census questionnaire on July 10, 2020. (Caitlin Hernandez/LAist)

POWER

Census data helps determine political representation, both in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C., so an accurate count is critical to how well Californians are politically represented. Already, California's population growth has slowed down compared to other states. Fewer people are immigrating here and more residents are moving to other states, especially from the L.A. area. Those changes mean the Golden State is poised to lose representation in Washington, D.C. for the first time in history. That grim forecast isn't even the worst-case scenario. Those projections are based on the unlikely assumption that everyone completes the census, so an undercount caused by rushed door-knocking could further cut back California's political power in Congress and presidential elections. If it comes to cutting out a district, researchers predict the L.A. area will be the most vulnerable.

MONEY

Over a trillion dollars in federal funding will be allocated per year based, in part, on the 2020 Census. In California, most of that money goes towards medical assistance programs like Medi-Cal. Another several billion dollars per year are spent on critical services and programs like SNAP, school lunches, highway planning, foster care, even disaster preparedness. The financial stakes of an inaccurate count are high. In the 1990 Census, for example, nearly one million Californians were missed, mostly from the Los Angeles region. Researchers estimate that undercount cost the state at least two billion dollars over the decade. So, just a reminder: for each person missed by the 2020 Census, it could cost the state $1,000 annually.

DATA

The Census isn't just about influence — it's also essential for understanding our communities. When the federal government responds to disasters, officials consult census data to better serve communities in danger. After a wildfire, census numbers can help FEMA decide where to set up shelters. Or in the midst of a pandemic like COVID-19, census responses help public health officials identify and serve vulnerable populations, like elderly people or children. When it comes to political redistricting, communities with a shared background, like a shared ethnicity or similar housing status, can be kept together and have a greater voice if those similarities are represented in census data.

THE PLAN

The 2020 Census was set to start in March and be completed by July 31. But already before Census Day on April 1st, the COVID-19 pandemic scrambled the Census Bureau's plan for the 2020 count. Almost every phase of the count was delayed for several months. Ultimately, the agency decided on a new schedule.

Under the new plan, in-person enumeration would last about three months, from August 11 to October 31. Then, the Census Bureau would take six months to do post-census data processing, like deleting duplicate responses or resolving unfinished cases.

The new pandemic plan was what former Census Director John Thompson called "a good workaround."

"Was it going to be perfect? No. Were there going to be challenges? Yes," said Thompson, who stepped down in 2017. "I think the Census Bureau was doing the best they could under very difficult circumstances."

Then came what's known as the "replan."

At the end of July, the Census Bureau drafted a new plan for the 2020 Census, which was released August 3. This cut the eight-month process for counting and processing in half. Instead of visiting non-responsive households in person until the end of October, the Trump administration abruptly announced that in-person work would wrap up Sept. 30.

Post-census data processing, which was to take six months, was cut down to three.

At the time of the announcement, the U.S. Census Bureau didn't explain why the decision was made. Since then, Virginia Hyer, a spokesperson for the agency, has said it was to meet the legal deadline to decide how many seats in Congress each state receives.

"By law, the Census Bureau has to deliver apportionment counts by the 31st of the census year, so by December 31st 2020," Hyer told LAist. "At this time we do not have statutory relief to increase the deadline."

But the decision rankled some senior census officials, according to internal correspondence released recently as part of a lawsuit over the shortened timeline. In one email, Census Associate Director Tim Olson wrote:

"We need to sound the alarm to realities on the ground - people are afraid to work for us...and this means it is ludicrous to think we can complete 100% of the nation's data collection earlier than 10/31 and any thinking person who would believe we can deliver apportionment by 12/31 has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation."

Census veterans like former bureau director Thompson also reacted with alarm.

"The truncation in the schedule has introduced numerous risks for poorer quality data, increased undercounts, and significant computer errors," Thompson said.

Self-response rates to the 2020 Census in LA County as of September 22, 2020. In orange-colored tracts, under 50% of households have completed the form on their own. (Screen shot from California Census Office)

A HARD-TO-COUNT COUNTY

Los Angeles County has the biggest population of hardest-to-count residents in the nation. Nearly half of all L.A. County residents — about five million people — live in a neighborhood that census takers have difficulty counting, for numerous reasons.

According to research done by the state of California, the top barrier to reaching these L.A. residents is dense or multi-unit households. Also, according to the state, about 20% of the county's households live without broadband service, something that in this year's first primarily online census has added an extra layer of difficulty. Counting residents who are renters or not fluent in English presents other obstacles.

Because of the delays caused by COVID-19, Angelenos have had extra time to complete the 2020 Census. That's the good news. Still, only about two-thirds of L.A. County households have completed the questionnaire on their own, over the internet, phone, or by mail. That's the bad news.

In the city of Los Angeles, so far 57% of households have done the form on their own. And while state census officials recently announced the state overall was ahead of its self-response rate for 2010, both the city and county of L.A. are behind the last decade's response rate.

Hard-to-count regions like Downtown L.A., South L.A., and Southeast L.A. are struggling the most: some census tracts haven't reached 50% self-response. Even areas considered easier to count, like the Westside, are still far behind response rates in prior censuses.

Census tracts that are considered "hard-to-count" are represented in dark red. (Screen shot from California Census Office)

WHAT IS NRFU?

The phase we're in now is called "Non-Response Follow Up," NRFU in census-speak. It's the phase in which census enumerators go out and knock on doors. These census workers began hitting local streets the second week of August.

How it works: If the Census Bureau doesn't receive a voluntary response from a household, say by mail or internet, then a census taker is sent to the door to follow up. According to census advocates, this in-person method of reaching residents is particularly effective in hard-to-count regions.

It's also the phase the Trump Administration has cut short.

So far, Census Bureau officials say they've made good progress counting people this way, despite the truncated timeline. They say that data out of their census offices in the San Gabriel Valley, San Fernando Valley, and West Covina regions shows this in-person work is over 95% complete.

But in the South Gate region, around 10% of households still need to be contacted.

"That percentage is not good at this point," former Census Director Thompson said. "It would be good if you had until the end of October."

And just because a household has been contacted does not mean it's been successfully counted.

CENSUS DATA WITH A GRAIN OF SALT

According to an internal email sent by Census Associate Director Tim Olson, many census takers quit their jobs before going out into the field.

"They're actually under their staffing projections," said Thompson, the former census director. "That's going to make them rush things."

The Census Bureau is reporting general success with its in-person data collection, but we don't know exactly how those residents were counted. The numbers released can obscure shortcuts taken to meet the early deadline.

Here are some of the alternative methods the Census Bureau uses to count people when there's no response at the door:

PROXIES When census takers can't collect a response from a resident, they may ask nearby neighbors for that resident's general information instead. This isn't ideal, but according to Thompson, this is one way the Census Bureau could produce results faster. He warned, however, that in the 2010 Census, an analysis of proxy enumeration revealed errors.

ADMINISTRATIVE RECORDS — Towards the end of the count period, the Census Bureau will sometimes allow information to be collected through other government agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, or U.S. Postal Service. This type of data collection is supposed to be kept to a minimum — a last resort — but according to Thompson the U.S. Census Bureau planned to use these methods based on information released to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform. This type of collection is less useful in some hard-to-count communities where residents don't have these kinds of government records.

AFTER THE COUNT/PROCESSING

The counting phase isn't the only part of the 2020 Census that was shortened, since the Census Bureau also cut back the time spent cleaning up the data at the end of the count. Instead of spending six months going over the numbers, the government plans to finish that work in three months. If a rushed census leaves Americans uncounted, the government may have to do some guesswork afterward to fill in the missing responses.

In a process that's called "imputation," census officials attempt to fill in missing information about an uncounted household, using other census data to guess if that house is vacant or not. Or, if they know it's not vacant, they may guess how many people live there. Regardless, courts have ruled the Census Bureau can't guess about the ethnicity or identity of residents.

This process of filling in missing information, while necessary to a degree, produces a less accurate, less detailed count.

LAWSUIT OUTCOMES

The recent changes to the 2020 Census did not go unnoticed. Several cities, states, counties, and nonprofits challenged the Trump Administration's plan in court. The City of Los Angeles is part of one major lawsuit, seeking to keep the census going through Oct. 31 as had planned.

Initially, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh granted those plaintiffs a temporary restraining order against the Census Bureau. That stopped the agency from winding down the 2020 count by laying off workers or closing offices. In recent weeks, some local census workers had reported receiving layoff notices.

On Sept. 24, Koh issued a preliminary injunction, a longer-lasting order forcing the Census Bureau to continue counting residents through October. Lawyers from the Department of Justice promptly appealed the decision on Friday.

In her order, Judge Koh said the government didn't give a good explanation for cutting the count short.

"Defendants failed to explain the options before them, failed to weigh the risks and benefits of the various options, and failed to articulate why they chose the Replan," Judge Koh wrote.

Census officials argued an extension would mess up the agency's timeline. Census Director Al Fontenot said in a declaration to the court that continuing the census into October would mean missing the deadline to have congressional apportionment tallies finished by the end of the year.

L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer said the city intends to keep fighting, and that he's optimistic that the judge's ruling will stand.

"This has been one of the more dramatic cases in which I have ever been involved, and the drama is going to continue for a while," Feuer told LAist.

Census advocates Itzel Flores Castillo Wang and Roberto Bustillo, with the local nonprofit Proyector Pastoral, walk down Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights distributing information about the 2020 count. (Caroline Champlin/LAist)

NOW WHAT?

According to a statement released by the U.S. Census Bureau, officials intend to comply with Judge Koh's ruling, at least for the time being.

So for now at least, census takers and local census advocates will have more time to reach residents — especially those in the hardest-to-count communities.

An extension also means census takers can make more attempts at households to reach someone who has not yet responded, rather than relying on less-accurate workarounds, like collecting responses from proxies.

More time also allows non-governmental census advocates like Proyecto Pastoral, one of many community groups that have partnered with the state to raise census awareness, to canvass neighborhoods and work with residents to help them feel comfortable about receiving a visit from a census taker.