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Census field offices begin to reopen, aim to close the gap in lagging 2020 U.S. count



U.S. Census Bureau field offices, considered the heart and soul of the effort to count every American, are beginning to reopen in Southern California months after they folded up shop in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Field offices in San Bernardino County opened their doors last week, and the Census Bureau says its office in Orange County will resume service on Monday, June 1.

The offices were shuttered after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued stay-at-home orders March 19, under which only essential businesses could remain open. Census officials have been doing what they can since then to ensure compliance, but questionnaire responses this year clearly are lagging.

“As we headed into the pandemic, a lot of these operations shut down,” said Patricia Ramos, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Census Bureau. “A lot of the community efforts in Southern California went digital. We resorted to virtual meetings, virtual town halls and phone calls with organizations to make sure everyone was aware that the census efforts won’t stop.”

Community groups and organizations pivoted to other methods of reaching out to the public — from phone banks to text messages.

In March, the Census Bureau also suspended delivery of census packets to households that do not get direct mail, Ramos said. In San Bernardino County, many of these homes are located in mountainous and rural areas. For example, the communities around Big Bear Lake rely heavily on getting mail service to post office boxes. But the U.S. Census Bureau does not deliver to post office boxes, Ramos said.

“So, they go to the front door and deliver the questionnaire,” she said.

San Bernardino County alone has 56,088 of these households, Ventura has 1,005 and Orange County has 1,741. There’s no word yet about when field offices in Los Angeles and Riverside counties will be open again.

Door knocking months away

The workers, equipped with protection such as masks, will simply deliver the questionnaires at front doors. They won’t interact with residents or anyone else — at least, not yet, Ramos said.

“That’ll only happen when we start the door-to-door knocking, which won’t take place until August,” she said.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives across the United States, has thrown a wrench in census data collection efforts, forcing deadlines to be pushed back so people actually have an opportunity to respond. This is the first year the government has allowed people to respond to census questions online.

In spite of that, response rates have varied by county in Southern California. Orange County’s response rate appears promising at 69.1% — very close to the 2010 response rate of 71.7%. Los Angeles, however, lags behind at 56.7%, still far away from the 69% self-response rate in 2010. San Bernardino County is at 57% (65.4% in 2010) and Riverside County at 59.4% (63.5% in 2010).

In Orange County, community groups on Friday, May 29, held a “census caravan,” a parade of school buses, cars and vans that made its way through the Mini Street and French Court neighborhoods of Santa Ana, which were identified as areas with some of the lowest response rates. The vehicles, bearing banners and magnets with information about filling out the census in Spanish, Vietnamese and Khmer, moved slowly through the communities.

Trust low in immigrant communities

This effort was primarily to relay information about the census in immigrant communities where trust in government is low, said Sarah Middleton, census consultant for Costa Mesa-based Charitable Ventures, which has a contract with the state to support census outreach for Orange County’s nonprofit sector.

“There is definitely fear and mistrust from immigrant communities and our partners continue to send out the message that the census is safe, secure and confidential,” she said. “That’s why trusted messengers are so important. If immigrant communities see an organization or person they trust saying this is important, they feel more comfortable participating. Otherwise, it just feels like a scary government survey.”

Parts of Los Angeles County hard hit by the pandemic also are the ones that are hardest to count, said Paul Ong, director of UCLA’s Center for Neighborhood Knowledge. According to Ong’s analysis of census responses through April 30, the response rates from 2010 to 2020 vary widely throughout the county. His analysis found that the response rate for 2020 is about 11 percentage points below what it was in 2010 for L.A. County. In many parts of the county, however, that rate is as low as 21.6%.

Struggling to ‘close the gap’

The only way to prevent an extreme undercount in some areas of L.A. County would be to send out hordes of in-person census takers, Ong said.

“But, if workers can only begin to go door to door beginning in August, it’s going to be very difficult to close the gap,” he said. “Despite significant efforts from census workers and local organizations, we are critically behind. Some groups such as low-income people, communities of color, renters and young children are at risk of being missed.”

Despite these dire projections, local groups are optimistic they will be able to reach those who are hard to reach.

Outreach at health clinics

AltaMed Health Services, which serves more than 300,000 patients across 35 community health clinics in Los Angeles and Orange counties, will start opening up census kiosks in its clinic lobbies beginning June 1, said Eduardo Cisneros, director of civic engagement.

AltaMed largely serves Latino and immigrant populations in both counties, particularly the uninsured and those on Medi-Cal. Workers at the kiosks will help people fill out their census forms right there, he said.

“AltaMed clinics happen to be located in the same neighborhoods that are considered hard to count. And because health providers are highly trusted, it is effective for us to promote the census,” Cisneros said.

Even as the kiosks were closed since mid-March due to the pandemic, 35 coordinators at the clinics operated phone banks calling 1.4 million households and having direct conversations with about 58,000 people, Cisneros said.

“We’ve continued to have posters and PSAs in our lobbies and we also started putting census information in our waiting room screen savers,” he said. “We’ve also started to do census outreach at COVID-19 testing centers by putting up banners, yard signs and handing out educational material when appropriate.”

Completing the census is extremely important because the results will dictate how funds and resources are dispersed, said state Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana.

“If we don’t have an accurate count, we are not going to get our fair share of resources,” he said. “And it is a competition for funds and resources where I’m competing with other legislators.”

Source: Orange County Register

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