Before the coronavirus pandemic, Orange County officials were already concerned about an undercount of residents in the 2020 Census, but with Census Day coming Wednesday many of the county’s census workers are furloughed or working on other assignments.

“Our field workers going door to door had to basically get furloughed, and now they’re working on other projects or taking time off,” said Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who also serves as president of the California State Association of Counties.

Those workers are specially trained and many are fluent in multiple languages to help reach hard-to-count residents, particularly recent immigrants.

“We’re going to have to advertise, recruit and train a new workforce,” Bartlett said. “There may be some individuals from the previous work force available for the next time around.

“But part of our challenge is we have a diverse population, so we need our field workforce to be multilingual and fluent in a number of languages… We are petrified we don’t have enough time to get an accurate count and we’ll be stuck with lower numbers for the next 10 years.”

Bartlett has sought help from Orange County’s congressional delegation in extending deadlines for submitting information for the 10-year count. Federal officials pushed a July 31 deadline back to Aug. 14, and Bartlett said she hopes to get more delays if the pandemic lingers.

This census is the first respondents can complete on line.

“So an increasing push to use the online systems to turn it in… We’re certainly already seeing that,” Cal State Long Beach political science professor Justin Levitt said. “They’re trying to amp up their efforts how we do this remotely.”

Los Angeles County was “running about five percentage points behind Orange County when it comes to response rate,” Levitt said.

However, there are concerns that online participation won’t help with reaching traditionally undercounted populations such as recent immigrants and the indigent because many don’t have access to the internet, Levitt said.

“We haven’t heard yet if they’re looking for alternative methods of counting them, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the census starts looking at state databases like driver’s licenses,” Levitt said.

Coroanvirus outbreaks are “going to make it much harder than the traditional door-to-door process,” Levitt said.

Before COVID-19, California officials were already worried they would lose a congressional seat because of a decrease in population growth, Levitt said.

“Population growth in California has really slowed this decade,” he said. “Part of it is immigration has slowed down. States that rely on immigration for population growth like California are slowing because of that.”

The increasing cost of living in California is also driving down the population, Levitt said.

California is often undercounted by one million to two million, because many immigrants fear responding to an official government inquiry, Levitt said.

That is especially so in recent years with heated debates about immigration reform and the federal government’s crackdown on illegal immigration, Levitt said.

“Especially this year with the controversy over the citizenship question” that Trump administration officials pushed for, but had to abandon due to court rulings, Levitt said.

The census determines how many members of Congress are assigned in each state and is also used to determine how much federal money states receive in various programs.

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