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'They Don't Take People Like Us Seriously': A Look At One Of LA's Undercounted Areas

Karen Banderas poses for a photo with her two children Nathan and Amairani at their apartment in Cudahy, Calif. (Caitlin Hernandez/LAist)
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By Caitlin Hernandez

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By all accounts, Karen Banderas, a 25-year-old single mother in Cudahy, is a part of the "hard-to-count" population in L.A. County for the census.

"Hard-to-count" — or historically undercounted — communities are high-rated areas determined by the California Census Office, known as the CA-HTC index. These are meant to indicate people who are less likely to respond to the census.

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But Banderas's life is more complex than a rating system. She hasn't had an income for almost nine months and is the mother of two children under five. She's also a DACA recipient living in a crowded one-bedroom apartment with her parents and two sisters.

To provide for her family, Banderas has been using welfare while working a 200-hour unpaid internship in medical billing. It took her an extra two months to complete it because of the pandemic, but now it's turned into a job.

"I'm a mom trying to better my lifestyle with my kids — and for my kids — because at the end of the day, my family's education was [no higher] than middle school," she said.

Banderas and her family came from Jalisco, México in 2000. She graduated from high school and just finished earning a certificate for medical billing and coding. Her tuition was fully through Hub Cities in Huntington Park.

A sign for the city of Cudahy. Calif. (Caitlin Hernandez/LAist)

Her parents rent the apartment in Cudahy, and Banderas, who wants to be self-sufficient, pays her portion to help. Her parents usually sleep in their small living room, while the rest of the family fits into the packed bedroom. But they haven't told management how many people are with them.

"We try not to make it obvious like we live there because, at the end of the day, I don't want [any] of us to lose our home," Banderas said.

Her mother is undocumented and despite the family's complex living situation, she filled out their census form a few months ago.

Cudahy, a small city of 24,000 with predominantly Latino residents, is historically undercounted by the census. It's labeled "very hard-to-count" in part because of the high numbers of people who rent, have low-income and are immigrants. Language barriers also play a role.

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"They don't take people like us seriously at times," Banderas said. "I feel like everybody works hard for where they want to better themselves, but I feel like the government does ignore that a little."

For civic engagement, she said they need more people working in the community who understand it and are willing to reach people where they're at on a regular basis.


That's a sentiment shared by Carmen Taylor-Jones, of Black Women for Wellness, who previously worked as the Los Angeles Area Regional Manager and former Homeless Count Coordinator for the census.

Her proactive approaches to the census weren't always embraced by the bureau, but they aren't lost. Her current focus is on South Central, another historically undercounted region that's predominantly Latino.

"It's going to require some extra bonding," Taylor-Jones said. " It's gonna require some extra work and some soul work. Let me find out where the interests are. Let me find out what's the joint attention here, where people really go, where do they congregate, all of those things."

The census shouldn't be approached clinically or strictly from an office, according to Taylor-Jones. Getting "boots on the ground" is needed to see the full picture of a census tract.

"Everybody is so comfortable now filling these charts up and talking about the low response rates and what that issue is. Okay, I got it, but what are you gonna do about it?" she asked. "If you know that there's a large homeless population here, what are you going to do about it?"


Locally-led community organizations, like Black Women for Wellness and numerous others, have been leading the census efforts in neighborhoods since the start — but that may change soon.

With the self-response deadline extended to Oct. 31, that's three months more than originally planned. While $10 million is currently being divided up in California to fund more of their outreach, groups are currently deciding if they have the capacity to continue.

For Banderas, she still hopes to see more civic engagement in the community no matter where they're from.

"I feel like we're not used to that change," she said. "We're not used to having that extra [connection] or people actually caring just in general in life."

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