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Only Half The Households In This LA Congressional District Filled Out Census Forms On Their Own. Who Loses Out?

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What's at stake for Southern California in the 2020 Census? Billions of dollars in federal funding for things like health care, 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.

The congressional district that spans much of central Los Angeles has earned an unwelcome recognition: it had the lowest self-response to the 2020 Census in the entire state.

The 34th District sits smack in the middle of the city, stretching from Downtown L.A. up to Eagle Rock. It also extends east, to Boyle Heights, and west, to Koreatown, the neighborhood that includes what is regarded as the single hardest-to-count census tract in the county.

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The barriers to reaching people here overlap. Most residents are renters and live in multi-unit structures. Almost half were born in another country. Also, more than a third of its residents do not speak English "very well," according to existing census data.

And when the first census responses started coming in this summer, the 34th District lagged behind its neighbors, living up to its hard-to-count reputation.

U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), who represents the district in Congress, watched the numbers come in and got worried.

"The count was not good, at all," Gomez said. "Worst of any congressional district in the state."

At that point, COVID-19 forced most census messaging onto social media, instead of face-to-face, as most local non-profits had planned for years prior. But with the self-response numbers looking so low, Gomez pushed advocates to go door-to-door, and even joined them.

"It's true, I pushed the groups." Gomez said. "I also walked the walk ... I never asked anybody to do anything I wouldn't do myself." The individual tracts they visited did see a slight boost in participation in the days afterward, Gomez said.

But when the census response period officially ended in October, only 52% of households in the district had completed their census questionnaires on their own.

The 34th District was still ranked last -- out of all 53 congressional districts in California.

"People shouldn't be surprised," Gomez said.

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Gomez believes the Trump Administration's attempts to exclude some immigrants from the count -- from a proposed citizenship question that didn't happen, to a more recent and ongoing attempt to subtract immigrants without legal status from population data -- may have intimidated people and stifled responses.

Plus, the pandemic hasn't helped: Central L.A. faced some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the county, according to the Department of Public Health.

Robert Santos, vice president of the Urban Institute and President-elect of the American Statistical Association, said he feels sorry for the residents of the 34th.

"The last thing on their mind was filling out a census form," Santos said. "You cannot blame these folks. It's not their fault."

According to Santos, such low self-response essentially ensures an undercount. Even though census takers followed up with households that did not respond on their own, the data they collect is typically lower quality than forms returned voluntarily by households; enumerators are allowed to use shortcuts if they can't make contact.

"Here we are in a situation that spells pretty much doom for communities that have really low self-response rates," Santos said.

The U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee, with Congressman Gomez as its vice-chair, is asking the Department of Commerce to release more information about how the millions of census questionnaires are being processed -- and how soon that data could be made public.

Based on reporting from NPR, the Census Bureau is expected to release state population estimates in January 2021, along with some information about the quality of the count. The full census data likely won't be released until later next year.

Only then will the scope of an undercount and its consequences in the 34th District be clear.

The Wellness Center at the L.A. County Historic General Hospital provides meals, fitness classes and mental health support to low income families. (Courtesy of The Wellness Center)

From representation in Congress, to federal funding for school lunches, the influence of the census is sweeping. But according to Gomez, healthcare is a priority for his constituents.

Located in the heart of the 34th is one of the biggest medical institutions in the county: the LAC+USC General Hospital.

Rosa Soto runs the Wellness Center there, in the historic old hospital building. The center provides meals, fitness classes and mental health support to low-income residents, and depends on population-based funding from the federal government.

"Many times they ask us, 'Who is the community that you serve?'" Soto said. "So we use a lot of the census data to inform how we apply for funding."

Recently, the Wellness Center received money from the federal CARES Act to hire neighborhood healthcare ambassadors to educate residents about COVID-19.

But if forthcoming census data doesn't accurately represent the population -- making it appear smaller than it is -- that same level of federal funding could be harder to get.

"When we don't have accurate data it creates a huge divide between the resources available and the need," Soto said.

And now, as the Wellness Center begins setting up a COVID-19 vaccine distribution site, that need for accurate census data is higher than ever.


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