Everyone Counts: SVCF's work to ensure an accurate 2020 census

Everyone Counts

SVCF is working to ensure all Californians get counted in the 2020 census

To most people, the census is an obligation — another to-do that sits on the kitchen counter for days, eventually occupying a few precious weekend minutes just before the due date. But the process of counting everyone in the country, which began in 1790 and is written into the Constitution, is incredibly important. That’s why Silicon Valley Community Foundation is taking steps to ensure everyone in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties is counted. 

The fundamental purpose of the census is to ensure each state gets the appropriate amount of representation in Congress. Officials draw district lines and designate the number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives based on census data.  

“It’s not something that people think about often, but it’s so important in terms of our representation at the federal level,” says Anne Im, immigration program officer for SVCF. “Let’s say California loses a seat because of an undercount. We lose a vote in Congress, which diminishes our voice on national policy matters that impact our state.”  

Federal funding for numerous programs and services is also allocated to each state based on population. That includes funding for schools, roads and highways, health services, environmental protection and housing.  

“We need to make sure that our communities are receiving our fair share,” Im says. “If just 1 percent of California residents aren’t counted in the census, our state will lose over $770 million in annual federal funding.”  

And the data isn’t only used by the federal government. Policymakers, community leaders and businesses rely on the statistics for a snapshot of the community, which is useful when planning how best to use resources. 

While participation in the census is crucial for communities and states — and required by federal law — more than a quarter of residents fail or refuse to complete their survey. And many more go uncounted, either because they did not receive a survey or the person who filled out the survey underreported the number of people in the household. 

Those most at risk for not being counted include racial minorities, immigrants and the homeless. It’s estimated that 75 percent of Californians — that’s over 30 million people — belong to one or more groups that are considered hard to count, making the undertaking all the more challenging. 

Communities with high costs of living like the Bay Area are hit particularly hard, as people sharing homes may be reluctant to be truthful on their surveys.  

“There may be 10 people living in a housing unit, and that family may have listed on their rental application that there are five people living there,” Im says. “This is common, because it’s so expensive to live here. But they’re afraid their landlord will find out, so they only list five people on the census.” 

Immigrants also fear the consequences of being truthful on their surveys. While federal law forbids the U.S. Census Bureau from sharing any of the individual information collected with other government agencies, undocumented immigrants remain cautious given the current administration’s immigration policies. And the 2020 census only stands to compound the problem, should U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross be successful in his efforts to add a question specific to immigration status. 

“People are afraid to complete the questionnaire because they’re afraid that the information will be shared with ICE and that they will be deported,” Im says 

Recognizing how important it is to get an accurate count in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, SVCF began preparing in 2017 for the upcoming census with an organizationwide task force.  

The task force is taking a four-pronged approach to the 2020 census, which is taking place on April 1, 2020: 

1) Policy advocacy

The census is a massive undertaking and requires significant federal funding to support it. SVCF, along with other foundations across the nation, has advocated for a budget increase for the 2020 census at the federal and state levels. 

There’s been some success: The California Legislature recently expanded funding to support the census to $90 million, an increase from the initial amount that was proposed.  

SVCF has also been advocating heavily to ensure that a proposed question about respondents’ immigration status not be included in the census. 

“There’s a lot of fear and tension in the immigrant community right now,” says Leah Wilberding, a philanthropy advisor at SVCF and a member of the task force. “Including this question would cause individuals who are new citizens or who may be undocumented to refrain from participating in the census for fear of ongoing or unintended consequences. And we would lose a critical voice in our community. That’s why we have joined hundreds of other foundations nationwide in opposing it.” 

2) Grantmaking

 Census participation is a communitywide effort, so SVCF provides grants to trusted community-based organizations to help reach hard-to-count populations through marketing and awareness campaigns, technical assistance and staffing to assist residents in filling out their questionnaires. 

The community foundation also financially supported this year’s Local Uptake of Census Addresses (LUCA), a process in which states must verify addresses and provide updates to the federal government accounting for any new developments, homes or rental units built since the previous census. 

It’s a huge task requiring resources that many community organizations just don’t have. SVCF provided grants to Sacred Heart Community Service Center in Santa Clara County and Daly City Partnership in San Mateo County to assist with LUCA canvassing. 

“The funding from SVCF provided an incredible base for us to complete this immense project in a very small timeline,” says Efrain Segundo Orozco, Sacred Heart program associate. “It is because of the funding that we were able to hire seven part-time canvassers and one full-time temporary staff member to coordinate our efforts.” 

Canvassing in both counties was successful — and eye-opening. “We already knew that it was common for two or three families to be sharing a two-bedroom apartment,” says Daly City Partnership Executive Director Pat Bohm. “But after walking the neighborhoods, it became more apparent that almost every second or third single-family home had a garage apartment or in-law conversion that they were renting out.” 

Without the canvassing efforts, families living in these unconventional units would not receive a census and would not be counted. 

3) Communication and outreach

Garnering communitywide support requires a lot of outreach. SVCF has been briefing legislators on census efforts and working with funders to identify possible partnerships. This winter, the community foundation is leading a roundtable to educate business leaders on the importance of the census and how they can affect participation. 

“The reach of business is incredible in terms of getting the word out not only to employees, but also to their customers and the public,” Im says. “Maybe a technology company can promote the census through social media, maybe there’s a business that’s willing to donate billboard space or put signs up in their window display. Some of our very large retailers that serve millions of people daily may be willing to put informational materials in everyone’s shopping bags. There are so many opportunities for businesses to be involved and make a difference.” 

And it’s likely to be worth their while, too, because businesses benefit from census data, using it to make strategic investments and understand their markets. 

4) Collaboration

Census 2020 is a statewide effort, and SVCF recognizes not every community foundation has the staff or resources to devote a task force to the effort. That’s why the SVCF task force recently produced a census 2020 guide for other California community foundations.  

“There is a lot of census information out there, and we want to make sure that community foundations have key information on how they can get involved with quick templates and resources to help them do so,” Im says. “Community foundations are going to play a pivotal role in ensuring our communities are counted.”

This story was original published in the SVCF Magazine Fall 2018 issue.