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2020 Census: Valley Is Home To Hardest To Count Areas In U.S. What Will It Take For Accurate Count?

Monica Velez
Valley Public Radio
A partially done 2020 census mural in Huron by artist Jose Jesus Elias.

When Lewanne Osborn moved to the foothill community of Springville 53 years ago, the population was around 900, she said. Flip to the year 2000, and the population went up to 1,092, according to census bureau data. But 10 years later the population declined to 934. 

“In my own mind I just don’t feel like it’s an accurate number,” Obourne said. “I have seen incredible growth, houses going up everywhere, new communities that used to be just nothing but hillside and grassland.”


Osborne is referring to the census count. She said it’s hard for her to believe everyone in her community has been counted, because the population growth she’s witnessed over the decades isn’t consistent with the Census Bureau numbers. 


She’s not alone. People all over the San Joaquin Valley have raised this point many times, said Cindy Quezada, a senior program coordinator at The Center, which is the Sierra Health Foundation's health advocacy nonprofit. Most of the people who think a significant portion of their community goes uncounted, she said, live in so-called hard-to-count communities


“I would say generally speaking hard-to-count communities tend to be people of color, low-income, immigrants, limited English proficient, children under 5 whose parents tend to fall under the categories that I just mentioned,” Quezada said.    


Out of the top 50 hardest to count places in the country, 10 are located in the Valley, according to Ellen Braff-Guajardo, senior program officer with The Center and Sierra Health Foundation. The mission for the 2020 count is to reach those places. 


For the first time the state is being divided into 10 regions, which is part of the state-wide collaborative project The California Complete Count. The goal is to count as many people as possible so Californians get their fair share of federal resources and political representation.  


Each region is led by community organizations, and more than $100 million in state dollars has been distributed out to these regions. The Sierra Health Foundation is heading outreach and research for the upcoming census in Region 6,  which includes Fresno, Kings, Tulare, Kern, and Inyo counties. Region 6 received more than $2.3 million


How do we reach hard-to-count communites?


Quezada’s been to small rural towns all over the Valley researching the implications of the census and the most effective ways to get people to participate. Her conclusion: showing people how the census affects their lives and community. 


“I would say, ‘You know census data is used to plan, right? Where schools should be and how many schools should be in a particular section because of the population,’” Quezada said. 


Once people understand dozens of federal programs are linked to census data, Quezada said, or how congressional and state senate districts are based on population they get on board. 


An undercount in 2020 could cost the state $1,000 in federal funding per person annually, according to updated numbers from the California Department of Finance. 


County government, businesses, and philanthropy organizations all use census data for planning and marketing, said Ed Kissam, a Sierra Health Foundation partner and WKF Fund trustee, which is a giving fund dedicated to social justice. 


But, what really matters is how that message is relayed and who is delivering it. 


“Passing out pencils, or passing out pamphlets, or PSA’s about ‘Hey it’s census time,’ that’s not going to work,” Braff-Guajardo said. 


It’s going to take door-to-door canvassing and face-to-face interactions, Braff Guajardo said, because there are high levels of fear and distrust of the government in many of the hard-to-count communities. Local organizations have close and trusted relationships with these communities, she added, which is why collaboration is also important. 


“The bottom line is, it’s got to be more than just straight messages,” Braff-Guajardo said. “It’s got to be that helping hand, it’s got to be folks who can help answer specific concerns and questions.” 


The canvassing approach has proven to work in parts of Kern County. The Dolores Huerta Foundation, or DHF,  received national recognition after the 2010 census for increasing the response rate in Arvin, Weedpatch, and Lamont -- all hard-to-count areas. A state senate seat was also added in the Valley, district 16, in part because of the DHF census work


Chavez said the DHF recruited about 200 volunteers 10 years ago and reached 3,000 doors in one day. 


“We were working with our census partners as well as other community groups to get the word out,” said Camila Chavez, executive director of the DHF. “It is tedious. It is difficult. Especially in the Central Valley where we live in rural communities, the houses are spread out far apart, and then the heat doesn't help when you’re out there.”


The citizenship question


President Donald Trump has pushed to add a citizenship question to the census, but earlier this month said he would drop that effort. But even though that won’t happen, in the San Joaquin Valley the damage is already done.  


“Many of us are still very concerned that ongoing administration anti-immigrant redirect and ongoing struggles about census issues will hurt response,” Kissam, who’s researched how the citizenship question would impact the Valley, said. “Those struggles will, even though the question is now gone, have had a negative impact on accuracy of the census, particularly for the San Joaquin Valley and California, but for the entire nation.” 


Even though people understand the importance of the census, Quezada said, people in mixed-status families, which is typical in the Valley, still prefer to not respond to the census than expose their family. 


“Again, it’s this distrust of the government and politicians,” Quezada said.  


By law, census information is supposed to be kept confidential and not shared with other agencies. People can face $250,000 in fines and up to five years in prison for sharing census information, but people “don’t believe that it's actually effective,” Quezada said. 


“People will say, ‘The president is billionaire what is $250,000 to him?’ she added. 


Mixed-status families are put in a “terrible ethical dilemma,” Braff-Guajardo said. “You can talk all about the protections in the law and yet people can come back and say, ‘Well yeah, but there are also protections around receiving certain public benefits that weren’t going to impact me or my family's ability to adjust my status, and now that’s all being reconsidered.” 


All these challenges are part of the reason The Sierra Health Foundation and their partners have been gearing up for the census for more than a year, Braff Guajardo said. The official count begins in April 2020. 


Legitimate addresses


The town of Huron sits in the southwest corner of Fresno County. It isn’t a place you’d just stumble upon -- it’s isolated and surrounded by miles and miles of fields.


“It’s a small farm working community for the most part, that’s how I would describe it,” said Aurora Ramirez, director of communities at the Westside Family Preservation Services Network,  a nonprofit community resource center.


Credit Monica Velez / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
An old packing house in Huron where people have built homes.

This laidback but passionate advocate grew up in Huron, and is the type of person everyone in town recognizes. She pulls up to a dirt field in her black Honda, just a short distance from a residential neighborhood. The road was rocky and bumpy. There’s no clear pathway for cars or any type of sidewalk. But, in the middle of the field there’s an old run-down warehouse.


“That packing house has people living there,” she said. “People are not going to assume that there are people living here, and there is.”


Fieldworkers have been living there for years, Ramirez said. They use tin, tarps, cardboard or whatever they can find to build a home. There are pockets of these makeshift homes all over town and the San Joaquin Valley. They don’t all have legitimate addresses, meaning the census bureau may not know people live there. 


So how did these people get counted in past censuses?


“I don’t think they do,” Ramirez said. “They’re seen as there not even existing addresses. So not only are we facing problems with people who don’t have an actual address, but ones that have an address that’s not considered a physical address.”  


The Census Bureau has a master list of addresses, Quezada said, and postcards will be sent out telling people to go online and complete the form.


Credit Monica Velez / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
A home people in Huron built.

But, people who live in makeshift homes likely won’t receive postcards. So, it’s up to community organizations to relay the message to people who are off the grid. A reason why Valley locals are also taking creative approaches to outreach.  


“We try to make some murals showing the importance about the census 2020 with some kind of pictures for workers, field workers,” said Felip Perez, a Firebaugh council member and project coordinator for the census. 


The first mural artist Jose Jesus Elias is working on is in Huron. The mural is only partially done. The words “2020 Census” hung above the farmers, fruits, and vegetables that are sketched out. 


Perez said these murals will eventually be in Mendota, Firebaugh, San Joaquin, and Kerman. So people in the Valley can look at them and ask themselves: “Why does the 2020 census matter to me?”

Monica Velez was a reporter at Valley Public Radio. She started out as a print reporter covering health issues in Merced County at the Merced Sun-Star.