WHEN LAURA PACHECO, A RESIDENT OF SALINAS, OPENED THE DOOR OF HER RENTED HOME TO A CENSUS VOLUNTEER IN 2010, SHE FROZE. “I told them that five people lived in the house,” she says, explaining she only counted her landlord’s family members and not the other five people living in the house, herself included. “I didn’t know what the census was,” Pacheco admits.
Ten years later, she’s a 2020 Census committee intern with Padres Unidos (Parents United) and knows better. Her job mostly consists of talking to parents about the census in the morning after they’ve dropped off their kids at school. Since joining the committee she’s learned that every resident counts, despite where, how and with whom they live. She’s also learned that by not counting herself and her family, which today includes a first-grader and a 12th-grader, her children’s schools and many other publicly available services were underfunded.
That is because the census isn’t just a head count taken every 10 years to calculate the population. The numbers paint a picture for the federal government, and the more residents truthfully participate, the more accurate that picture becomes.
The federal government in turn uses those numbers to determine how to divide some $675 billion in funding for social programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps); public housing; and schools, including preschools and Head Start, to name a few. It also determines the apportionment of state representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The problem for Monterey County, however, is that many local residents just like Pacheco don’t participate in the census because of a lack understanding of what the census is and how crucial it is for funding and representation. Due to factors like a high population of renters, high poverty levels, crowded living conditions and poor access to internet infrastructure, Monterey County has what are known as “hard-to-count” communities, according to census experts.
According to research done by George Washington University, California alone lost out on $34.9 billion worth of funding because of an undercount in 2010. In that census, an estimated 136,000 Monterey County residents, or around one-third of the population, went uncounted. Also on the line this year: California could risk losing one of its 53 seats in the state’s congressional delegation.
With lessons learned from 10 years ago, county officials are pushing for a more accurate count. They have formed the 2020 Census Complete Count Committee, a partnership between the county and all 12 Monterey County cities, local nonprofits and community groups and volunteers. Formed in the summer of 2018, the idea behind the committee is to recruit and deploy everyday people like Pacheco who live in these communities – but especially those who have historically been undercounted – as they would be the best communicators and teachers.
Though the committee has been present at various meetings and events, come Jan. 21, the real work begins and the 2020 Census officially begins counting.
THE COUNTY’S 2020 CENSUS COMPLETE COUNT COMMITTEE WORK IS BUREAUCRATIC, involving committee meetings, planning, paperwork and answering technical questions. But often the best way to disseminate information and dispel myths about the census comes from real human interactions, and “swag,” says Rosemary Soto, the head of the committee and a management analyst at the Monterey County Administrative Office. “Peer-to-peer contact” or “meeting people halfway” is how Soto sometimes phrases it.
But even halfway can be a challenge. According to the California Census website, some obstacles come by way of language barriers. Nearly a third of Monterey County residents who are over the age of 5 “do not speak English very well,” according to the census website.
Additionally, there are more than two dozen census “tracts,” or defined geographical areas, in Monterey County that score high on the state’s hard-to-count index. The index takes into account factors such as access to broadband, educational attainment levels and population of foreign-born residents when calculating how difficult it will be to count the population of a certain tract. The higher the number, the more difficult the area is to count.
Among the most difficult tracts are Big Sur, South County, North County and Alisal.
For Soto, that means finding people who live and work in those communities. “We’re recruiting people that are bilingual, or already go to parent meetings at local schools or work in these communities,” she says. From there, Soto’s theory is that trust from those populations doesn’t have to be built from the ground up, like it would have to be if the information was coming from a county official. When the trust is there, people are more open to ask questions, like: Does immigration or citizenship status matter? Nope. Does moving away for three months a year to work in agriculture in Arizona mean I’m a California resident? Yes.
As to the citizenship question, which was the subject of a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration and U.S. Census Bureau: The Supreme Court struck the question down in July, before census-taking materials went to print, and it won’t be part of the 2020 Census. As Pacheco talks to families, she says one of the most common fears people have is about immigration. “I tell them that they don’t ask about citizenship and it’s confidential,” she says.
Those types of conversations about sensitive topics with members of the community is an example of the mission of the Complete Count Committee. “We do it this way so it’s not just this white dude in a suit speaking English to a bunch of indigenous women,” Soto says. “It’s a trained-trainer, grassroots approach.”
This tactic extends to pretty much anyone: administrators in the county jail and in homeless shelters, receptionists at feeding programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC), or North Monterey County Unified School District students, who are often frontline translators for their parents.
Then there’s the material aspect of informing the public. The county is receiving around $1.5 million from the state and other sources to be divided among nonprofits and organizations to help spread the word about the census. That money is partially used for fliers and brochures passed out at various information booths and tabling events, plus what Soto calls “swag” to promote census participation.
“Useful stuff like umbrellas,” she says. “It’s not cheap.”
Soto uses a portion of the money to print for people and organizations that don’t have access to printers or paper, but it’s also used to produce take-home items like pens and umbrellas – materials Soto knows people will pick up and carry around, so others to see the census logo.
“It’s really working. People come up to me or one of our partners and ask them about it and then they can explain,” she says. In other words, it’s a good conversation starter.
But despite these efforts, the county is still struggling to connect with certain communities, including the black and Asian Pacific Islander demographics. New to the census this year is a digital component. It can be done as a write-in document, by phone call, or online – which concerns Soto, who notes that not everyone knows how to use a computer or has access to a stable internet connection. But Soto believes most of these challenges can be overcome by good communication, and by training people living within those communities.
To that end, Soto is still recruiting more volunteers and aiming to foster more partnerships. “We have a job for everyone, whatever your time constraints, and whether you’ve done this work or not.”
IN A WAY, PREPARING FOR THE CENSUS SHOWS THE GOOD, BAD AND COMPLICATED OF ANY GIVEN PLACE. Monterey County’s hard-to-count tracts show a high number of people living in overcrowded conditions, often in buildings not meant for multiple families. Many are in isolated, rural communities where it’s hard for government to provide services. Those are problems that local governments struggle to tackle on a day-to-day basis, not just once a decade. But Soto, with her grassroots team of professionals and nonprofessionals like Pacheco and Mireya Gomez-Contreras – a census consultant for nonprofit First Five Monterey County – say those problems are precisely why Monterey County needs to get a complete count.
“Money from the census shows up in everything,” Gomez-Contreras says. “It’s a lot of things – like food stamps, funding for breakfast, childcare services, housing vouchers for Section 8 and county-based cash aid.”
Gomez-Contreras is mostly concerned about ensuring that kids under 5 are counted (over a million children in this demographic nationwide went uncounted in the 2010 Census) she also acknowledges that an accurate count helps secure funding to fix roads and provide accessible healthcare – all federally funded services that people use, regardless of age.
“Of course kids aren’t filling out the census, but adults need to take them into account,” she says.
Pacheco is a parent of two children (who are both above age 5, and attend Salinas schools). She notes the money allocated from the census can have an immediate effect. “It’s not just the county that gets money,” she says. “It’s the city, too.” According to California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, some local governments receive funding from the federal government directly, although the impact of an undercount hasn’t been fully investigated.
The city of Salinas spent around $1,733 per resident in 2018, according to an analysis of city budgets conducted by the Weekly. Calculations by George Washington University show that for every five people who go uncounted in the census, $100,000 worth of funding are lost within 10 years. That’s roughly $2,000 per person annually – more than Monterey County’s largest city spends per resident in a single year.
For Pacheco and her family, an accurate count means a better neighborhood, whether or not it shows up in roads, schools or meal programs. “I want to see the money go to better after school programs, preschools, better lunches for kids,” Pacheco says. “It’s our future, you know?”