How would a census undercount impact Californians?

Jeff vonKaenel

Having a complete census count is very important for California. The census determines federal funding for infrastructure, health care, education and housing, as well as our level of representation in Congress. The Trump administration’s proposed addition of a citizenship question, as well as its underfunding of the census, threaten our ability to get a complete count. I spoke with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to find out how the proposed changes to this year’s census might impact our state. Here are key excerpts:

Thomas Hofeller, the late Republican redistricting expert, said in an email that adding the citizenship question would be, “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”

Padilla: I think the Trump administration’s decision to question the citizenship of every person in America was initially a thinly veiled attempt at suppressing census participation in diverse communities. The disclosure of this email removed the veil, and made it abundantly clear what the motives are for this administration in undermining the census. … The presence of a question about citizenship has the effect of discouraging or intimidating certain hard-to-count communities from participating. So that undermines the very purpose of the census and undermines the very mission of the Census Bureau. Now it’s in the hands of the Supreme Court. Lots at stake here.

People are concerned about the decrease in enumerators. We had about 500,000 for the last census and now it’s only going to be 300,000.

Yes, further evidence that this administration is undermining the census. … It’s year after year of underfunding, understaffing the Census Bureau. There’s a lot of work, testing and preparation that goes into the census. For this particular census, the Census Bureau has been underfunded and understaffed and they’re much less prepared at this stage of the game than they should be to achieve a fair and accurate count of our nation’s population. Fewer numerators in 2020 and fewer questionnaire assistance centers that a lot of people rely on to make sure that they’re properly participating in the census. That includes a decision to make this a digital first census for the first time in history. A lot of us remember getting a form in the mail ten years ago. What most Americans will receive this year is a postcard with instructions how to go online to submit your information electronically.

So a significant undercount would mean white, higher income people who tend to vote Republican would receive significantly more of the roughly 7 trillion federal dollars allocated over the next decade at the expense of disproportionately minority and poor residents who tend to vote Democratic?

The way Trump and Republican leaders have rigged the 2020 census, it looks stacked against communities of color, lower income, American, immigrant communities … the very many diverse communities that we have in California and that help make California as great as we are.

Their political playbook has been exposed, between the citizenship question, the digital first census, the reduction in funding and staffing for the Census Bureau. Their purpose is to manipulate the outcome of a census to the detriment of diverse communities like many in California, and to the benefit of their base. Absolutely. Not just for federal funds, but for political power as well. Because that drives the reapportionment process and the redistricting process.

So tell me about the state’s efforts to deal with this problem.

The state of California has made an unprecedented investment in census outreach and education. The governor has asked me to chair the California Complete Count Committee, to help oversee how we’re investing these dollars. It will be a combination of strategies from a statewide advertising campaign through the media, including social media, [and] there will be a lot of money invested regionally and locally in targeted message campaigns, in partnership with the community based-organizations who are frankly the most trusted voices, in local communities across the state.

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an SN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.


Stay Updated

For the latest local news, arts and entertainment, sign up for our newsletter.
We'll tell you the story behind the story.

About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.