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April 1, 2020, is known across the United States as Census Day, the official moment in which the country stops to take stock of the population. It happens every 10 years. This time around, the federal government intends to go digital and save the paper.
But for a group of North County activists and officials, Census Day is just another point on an 18-month campaign to make sure everyone gets counted. The survey is not just mandated by the U.S. Constitution. It ensures an equitable distribution of resources and shapes politics from Congress on down.
“Our community has always been underserved and undercounted,” said Ana Ardón, with the National Latino Research Center at Cal State San Marcos. “We have people here to make sure North County is back on the map.”
She and other researchers held a workshop in Vista last week with federal, state and local officials to begin strategizing about how to get more people involved in the process. In 2000, the number of San Diego County households that participated in the national survey was 78 percent. That number fell to 72 percent in 2010 and it could easily fall lower.
That depends, in part, on where the courts land this spring.
On Wednesday, a federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s plans to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. That case is centered in California. A second case in New York, however, is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the justices are expected to hear testimony in April. Groups suing the federal government have argued the question is a roundabout way of asking people about their legal status that will cause them to avoid census takers and their liaisons.
“If the court decides to include the citizenship question, our job is going to be much more difficult,” said Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez, the research director at NLRC. “But even if they decide to leave it off, so much damage has already been done in questioning trust in government.”
Not everyone knows that census data is private or believes it’ll remain that way, and the suspicion is not unreasonable. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have been finding and arresting unauthorized immigrants with the assistance of DMV databases. A California law allows those immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, and it now appears to be exposing them to federal authorities.
To overcome those feelings, the state has set aside $100 million for outreach — 50 times what it spent in 2010, when it was in a budget crisis, Reuters reports. But whether that’s enough is an open question. That’s where local activist groups and researchers, like at the NLRC, come in handy.
“I can’t reach people here in Vista, but you can,” Connie Hernandez, a census program manager and tribal coordinator for California, told the workshop. “As a state worker, I’m going to have the same reactions, regardless of the language and the color of my skin.”
Of the approximately 650 tracts in San Diego and Imperial counties, about 230 are considered “hard to count,” according to NLRC, meaning the households there experience poverty or language barriers or lack internet access, among other things. Nearly 50 of those census tracts are located in North County, mostly along the Highway 76 and Highway 78 corridors in Escondido, San Marcos, Vista and Oceanside.
Based on the funding for the 16 largest federal assistance programs that distributed funds based on the 10-year census, the George Washington Institute of Public Policy estimated that the average person represents about $2,000 in total obligations. For every 10,000 people who aren’t officially counted, local programs are missing out on $20 million for services like school lunches and health care.
Knowing for sure how many people are missing from the survey every 10 years is not easy. According to Reuters, the Census Bureau’s own analysis of 2010 found that it had undercounted young children by 4.6 percent and missed 1.1 percent of renters.
In San Diego County, an undercount may not translate into a substantial amount of money — perhaps a few tens of millions of dollars, a drop in the public finance bucket. But one of the takeaways of the workshop in Vista was that those hypothetical dollars remain an effective rhetorical tool when talking to otherwise skeptical households. One can easily picture the money going to improvements in the schools and clinics they see or use every day.
“We get their attention very quickly,” Nuñez-Alvarez said. “Now we’re talking about a direct connection to their lives and what their community looks like.”
An accurate census count also affects the political landscape. Electoral lines are reshaped around the survey, and that’s becoming increasingly relevant in North County, where cities and school districts are being forced to break into districts to boost the chances of Latino candidates. The map-makers need to know who lives where.
The Public Policy Institute of California warned last year that while the state’s population is growing, the sense of anxiety within immigrant communities across the state puts at risk its number of congressional districts. They warned that an undercount could diminish California’s strength in the U.S. House of Representatives.
It’s happened before. An undercount in 1990 caused California to lose a seat and a collective $200 million in federal funds, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which provides nonpartisan advice to lawmakers. The same researchers argue that losing a seat, however, is less likely this time around, because of improvements in the Census Bureau’s methodology, data and prep.
Still, groups like NLRC aren’t taking any chances.
SANDAG officials are expected to talk later this month about how they can help coordinate the outreach efforts among local cities. In the meantime, organizers intend to spread the message largely by word of mouth — at Little League games and citizenship classes.
Ry Rivard reports that public energy agencies, like the one in Solana Beach and the one being floated in San Diego, are sometimes pitched as an alternative to local power monopolies, but they could become monopolies themselves if companies like SDG&E get out of the power-buying business. That’s significant because there’s increasing talk of public energy programs in North County.
The Union-Tribune reports that Carlsbad has authorized the city manager to proceed with Oceanside, Encinitas and Del Mar to create a community choice energy program. “We are in the midst of an energy revolution,” said City Councilwoman Cori Schumacher, according to the newspaper.
Public energy programs, also known as community choice aggregators, or CCAs, are being pitched as cheaper and more environmentally sustainable alternatives to the traditional investor-owned companies. Regionwide talks are being driven, the Coast News reports, by the experience that Solana Beach officials have already gained.
The San Diego County Democratic Party is debating whether a prominent South Bay political consultant gamed the endorsement system to steer finances to his friends and clients. Andrew Keatts and I laid out the case that self-appointed reformers have been making behind closed doors.
I bring it up here because even though the feud is centered in the South Bay, it affects the entire county. Activists contend that the consultant has significant influence over youth clubs that can help toss their support to whichever candidate he prefers. The conversation is now shifting to the appropriate way to close a loophole in the party’s bylaws that theoretically allow this type of gamesmanship to exist anywhere.
But Melinda Vásquez, a prominent North County Democratic official, told me that she’s concerned reforms could have a chilling effect. She worried if the party made new clubs harder to form and sustain, it may actually stifle participation in local races, especially among high school kids.
Which brings us to …
The next California primary is one year away. Believe it.
Terms limits are forcing Dianne Jacob out of the District 2 seat on the County Board of Supervisors, where she’s served for 27 years. But with her stepping down, Republican Poway Mayor Steve Vaus tossed his cowboy hat in the ring. The district mostly comprises East County. Labor leader Tom Lemmon is one possible contender on the Democratic side.
Over in District 3, which is made up of Escondido, Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar, Supervisor Kristin Gaspar has yet to announce whether she’s running for re-election. So while she eyes a congressional bid, at least two Democrats are positioning into place.
Disclosure: Diaz is a member of the VOSD Board of Directors.