Census Advocates Have More Time For Outreach, But Their Funding Is Almost Gone

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

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Last month, a federal judge blocked the Trump Administration's attempt to end the 2020 Census early. The government has appealed that decision with hopes it can be heard by the Supreme Court. But for now, the count is extended through Oct. 31.

The decision was a win for the City of Los Angeles and other nonprofits which filed the lawsuit, arguing that a rushed census would undercount hard-to-reach Angelenos, especially communities of color.

With an extra month for the count, local census advocates could keep raising participation in those neighborhoods with low response rates.

The problem is, the money for their work has run out.

"Yes, resources are fully spent and people are tired. They've been out there doing this a lot longer than ever anticipated," said Stephania Ramirez, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the California Community Foundation, a Los Angeles-based philanthropic organization.

California Community Foundation is responsible for distributing $11 million in state funding to community groups doing census outreach in the L.A. area. That's a portion of the total $187 million the state spent on the census — the most money any state has ever spent on the count. By comparison, California only spent $2 million on the 2010 census.

Despite the historic investment, many local nonprofits say they don't have resources left to continue outreach for the rest of the month. Others have already shifted their focus to promoting participation in the November election.

Out of 115 community-based organizations that received state funding for census outreach in Los Angeles County, only about half will keep working in October, according to Ramirez.

"It's a little sad," said Margarita Lopez-Pelayo with Pacoima Beautiful, one organization that's still working on census outreach this month.

The Pacoima group is partnering with eloteros, paleteros and taquerias to spread the word about the count. They also have a "Let's Taco 'Bout Census" campaign that entices people to complete the questionnaire with the promise of free tacos. Still, they're having to make some sacrifices.

"We had to cut our canvassing team in half," Lopez-Pelayo said. "We're stretching our dollars from the funding we did get and making it work."

She acknowledges that many other nonprofits weren't able to save money. It leaves her and other organizers wondering: was $187 million enough?

Ditas Katague, Director of the California Census Office, gets that question a lot. She counters with a question of her own: what if the state didn't invest anything?

"I just have to look at the states that didn't invest and see how far behind they actually are," Katague said.

She points to Texas, where only 62% of households have responded to the 2020 Census on their own. In California, 69% of the state has self-responded — surpassing results from the 2010 census.

"Because I'm kinda competitive, as long as we're doing better than Texas, Florida and North Carolina, I'm happy," Katague said.

According to Katague, self-response rates in California's hard-to-count areas are higher than similar areas in other states. Still, Los Angeles County is behind where it was in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with only 64% of households self-responding.

But at this point, Katague acknowledges that some parts of the census are out of her control. It was up to the federal government to determine the count's schedule. Once the count is officially over, it will be up to the Census Bureau to assure the quality of the data collected.

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.

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