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How Civic Engagement is Protecting the 2020 Census in California

, Kendall Science Fellow | December 3, 2019, 4:50 pm EDT
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This and other stories are part of a larger UCS analysis, Our Unhealthy Democracy, that explores the intersection of voting rights, representation, and public health. Throughout the 2020 election cycle, the Center for Science and Democracy will be highlighting the work of actors and organizations dedicated to bringing the best science and policy solutions to the renewal of our democratic institutions, and the implementation of equitable health and environmental policies. To learn more and find out what you can do in your community to build a sustainable and equitable democracy, visit the report page on the UCS website.

The nation’s largest scientific study is now hiring. As the 2020 decennial census prepares to launch early next year, they need to train approximately half a million enumerators to knock on doors and interview hard-to-reach populations. The challenge has been especially daunting given the Trump administration’s efforts to weaponize the census as a discriminatory tool, a strategy that has amplified xenophobia and nativism, threatening to further depress census participation.

In California, which is home to the largest Latinx population in the US, the Latino Community Foundation is engaging local communities to ensure a complete and accurate count. I interviewed LCF’s Policy Director, Christian Arana, about the importance of community engagement for census accuracy and the tactics being developed. “Without [full] census participation, California could lose one or even two Congressional seats” says Arana, noting the importance of representation not only for votes in Congress, but for the state’s influence in the Electoral College. In an era where control over the House of Representatives is more contested, those votes could have major policy implications. Federal representation is also crucial for determining the amount of funding that California receives for 55 programs based on data derived from the census. In 2016, that amounted to over 115 billion dollars, according to George Washington University’s Counting for Dollars 2020 Project.

That included over 55 billion in Medicaid funding, 8.6 billion in student loans, and billions more in housing programs. But much smaller programs, such as the 9.3 million dollars California received for water and waste disposal systems for rural communities, could drastically impact many populations in the state, including those on whom we depend for agricultural work.

In addition to suffering from high levels of toxin exposure, residents in the farmland west of Stockton are among the hardest to reach communities in the census count.

Consider census tract 39, the farmland west of Stockton near where my father grew up as a field worker. It is one of the most toxic places in the state in terms of pesticide contamination and impaired drinking water, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Residents, over 70% of whom are Latinx, suffer from high levels of Asthma and low birth weights. They are also among the most hard-to-reach populations in the country. In 2010, only 69% of households mailed back a census questionnaire, requiring in-person follow up to count the remaining 31%.

In San Bernardino County, where I was born, the eastern-most tract contains poisonous water and hazardous waste levels, primarily due to mining. Mining pipeline spills, barium, thorium, radium and uranium groundwater contamination threaten the health of residents and desert tourists in eastern San Bernardino County. About a third of the sparsely-populated desert region is Latinx, and it was also one of the most difficult to count in 2010.

Arana pointed out that environmental justice communities like these all over the state are empowering themselves through organization.

“The more we can help environmental justice leaders become the messengers, the better.” To this end, Arana suggests that these leaders  establish and support Complete Count Committees, comprised of government and community leaders working to maximize local census participation. The Latino Community Foundation is also supporting public education and outreach efforts to empower community members who already have the trust and respect of residents. Second, as the census starts to bring on the enumerators, Christian believes “there is no person better to have these jobs than someone already known in the community.”

If you want to know how to get involved with the census in your neighborhood, find out more at California’s census website, or the national website.

In the current political climate, Arana believes they need to spread the message that “we should be the people counting our community.” People need to be aware that they have a right to be counted, regardless of their citizenship status. “Everyone needs to know that [the information] cannot be shared with other government agencies like immigration enforcement.” Arana says that while there is always some level of risk in sharing information, “the bigger risk is not being counted…losing out on our right to be politically represented.” That risk looms larger in the face of climate challenges, where visions like a Green New Deal are going to require the presence and hard work of representatives who can speak on behalf of those who bare the greater burden of environmental threats.

“People are looking for an opportunity to fight back, and this is an opportunity to really fight back. Nobody can take away our right to exist.” The Latino Community Foundation, along with numerous others around the state are committed to an accurate census as part of a larger commitment to both scientific integrity and civil rights.

“Right now, it’s the greatest act of resistance that anybody can do” Arana says of ensuring a full and accurate census count, “otherwise we stand to be erased from our country.”

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