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Organizers Use Technology, Relief Efforts To Push Past Census Obstacles

People at the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA on March 6, 2020, hear about the upcoming 2020 census.
Matt Hoffman
People at the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA on March 6, 2020, hear about the upcoming 2020 census.

Census counters sent by the government will begin knocking on doors across the country today, going to homes that haven’t filled out the census yet. In the past few months, community organizations here in San Diego have made their jobs easier by successfully boosting San Diego’s self-response rate, despite the pandemic.

“I’ve seen how it determines redistricting and how it impacts if a hospital gets built, or free lunch gets paid,” JoAnn Fields told KPBS. It’s her third go-round with the census after helping the county’s efforts in 2000 and 2010.

Organizers Use Technology, Relief Efforts To Push Past Census Obstacles
Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.

Fields is an organizer on Asian and Pacific Islander issues and is working with a variety of community groups in San Diego to boost census responses for this year’s count. After each decade, she’s seen how the census directly translates to vital infrastructure for San Diego’s neighborhoods.

“In National City, we have a new urgent care at Paradise Valley Hospital. Why? It’s because they’re serving more people in National City and southeast San Diego,” Fields said.

She sees this year’s count as vital to focusing the government’s recovery efforts in the right places. For example, she says, federal CARES Act funding for the coronavirus pandemic was tied directly to the previous census.

Video: Organizers Use Technology, Relief Efforts To Push Past Census Obstacles

But this has been a census like no other in American history.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, efforts by local organizations to go door-to-door to get people to respond to the census had to be put on hold this spring. Mail delivery has been slowed. Meanwhile, a lot of residents, especially those in poor neighborhoods, have had a lot of other things on their minds.

But there have been some things working for the census this year. Like seemingly everything else, the census has gone online. And it’s shorter.

“Technology is on our side this time. This is the first year we can complete the census online, and there’s only nine questions,” Fields told KPBS.

RELATED: With Census Deadline Moved Up, Local Organizations Race Against An Undercount

That means efforts like Count Me 2020, San Diego and Imperial County’s official census coalition, can track in real-time where people are answering the census, and which areas need more outreach.

For neighborhoods like City Heights, which relies heavily on government support for better education, housing, and healthcare, organizations can pinpoint where to focus their efforts.

“We’ve had to switch our strategies. We’re dropping off literature, hoping to at least in some way to reach out to our community to make sure they’re counted,” said Brenda Diaz, the civic engagement coordinator at Mid-City Community Advocacy Network.

Her organization has been spearheading census efforts in City Heights, where non-English speakers, refugees, and immigrants have been hard hit by both the adverse health impacts and the economic fallout from the pandemic.

She explains that makes the census less of a priority, while at the same time, that much more important.

“We understood and still understand that the census is very important. But again, it’s not a priority in our community. By first addressing the issues they're concerned about and giving them some ease and some relief, then they’re able to take in our messaging,” she explained.

“Because in order for there to be resources when it comes to emergency services and healthcare and rent relief, we need you to participate in the census.”

In addition to reaching people where they are, census organizers have had to get a bit creative. In the past few weeks, they’ve launched car caravans around neighborhoods in San Diego and Imperial counties, encouraging people to participate in the census.

These efforts have been paying off. Right now, San Diego County has surpassed its final 2010 self-response rate, with 69.2% of households in the county responding. But that still means that government workers will have to visit 382,000 homes. Because of a decision by the census bureau last week, they’ll have one fewer month to do that. The count will end Sept. 30.

And neighborhoods like City Heights are still lagging behind.

As of last week, its response rate was just under 60%.

The final push to get an accurate count is where City Heights leaders like Mikaiil Hussein are stepping up. He’s the head of the United Taxi Workers of San Diego, whose members are from the immigrant communities that are the hardest to count.

Over a hundred of their drivers are being paid this week to put a large magnet on their taxis promoting the census in several languages.

“Our community, as you can see, they’re a visual community. They want to see things in order to do something,” he told KPBS.

Hussein believes that messengers from their own communities, and not the government, will help alleviate any concerns they might have about the information they’re sharing. Especially after the Trump administration unsuccessfully attempted to put a citizenship question on this year’s census.

“They want to see someone they can relate to. In other words, they know what they mean. What’s the benefit? Why is it a benefit? What [the government] is allowed to ask, what they cannot ask,” Hussein said.

With the clock ticking, and with even less time than organizers expected, San Diego has under two months left to get its census count right — and the next ten years are riding on it.