BY CAROLINE CHAMPLIN
Originally published on August 25, 2020
In the early afternoon on a particularly scorching day last week, census advocates walked door-to-door in Boyle Heights, distributing hundreds of flyers with information about this year’s decennial count.
Earlier this month, when the Trump administration suddenly decided to cut the 2020 census short, this sort of in-person outreach took on an extra layer of urgency. Instead of ending Oct. 31 as had been planned, the counting phase of the census is now set to end Sept. 30.
“It’s like a battle,” said Roberto Bustillo, co-director with Proyecto Pastoral, a local community group working on civic engagement and education in Boyle Heights.
After a quick check-in at the King Taco on César Chávez Ave. and Soto Street, Bustillo led the group of volunteers from Proyecto Pastoral around the surrounding neighborhood. These community canvassers are completely independent from the Census Bureau, but still feel the pressure of the time crunch.
“We had to speed up because we had to ensure that everybody participates,” Bustillo said.
Prior to the deadline change, Proyecto Pastoral’s census awareness campaign was mostly remote, employing text and phone banking, to protect volunteers from potentially catching or spreading COVID-19. Already one of Bustillo’s co-workers recently became ill and tested positive.
But with less time available, Bustillo believes being visible in the community and preparing residents for a potential visit from a federal enumerator is worth any risk they may face. They go out wearing masks and keep their distance from people they encounter.
They can’t stop canvassing, he said, because the stakes are too high.
CENSUS TRACT 2042
The particular Boyle Heights census tract they were focusing on that afternoon is officially numbered 2042. It has been historically undercounted. Ninety-seven percent of the community there is Latino. Most residents are renters, and few have broadband access.
So far this year, only 40% of households in this tract have responded to the census on their own —meaning thousands of dollars for local community clinics and schools could go unclaimed.
Two weeks ago, official census enumerators also started making door-to-door visits in L.A. County.
Kathi Cervantes, another program director with Proyecto Pastoral, said community advocates like her may have an easier time connecting with residents before a federal enumerator shows up at the door.
“We look like we’re from here, so we look like you can trust us,” Cervantes said, who actually is from the neighborhood: While out that day, Cervantes was assigned to canvas in the same apartment building where she grew up.
Like Bustillo, Cervantes feels the pressure of the new deadline, describing it as a race against the clock.
“That’s why we’re here, and it’s hot, and we’re still doing this. Like, the clock is ticking!” Cervantes said.
Ideally, she said, she’d like to see the count deadline extended until next year to make up for delays caused by COVID-19. Earlier this year the deadline had been extended to help make up for pandemic-related delays from July 31 to Oct. 31, until it was suddenly changed this month.
WHERE L.A. STANDS
At this point, it’s highly unlikely the deadline for enumeration could be delayed to next year, but the city of Los Angeles is in a legal fight for a more modest extension.
A lawsuit filed by L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer and several non-profits earlier this month asks a U.S. district judge in Northern California to force the Census Bureau to return to the previously planned schedule, and end the count on October 31.
At a press conference last week, Feuer said half of Angelenos live in neighborhoods labeled “hard to count” by the state, and the shortened time frame will lead to an undercount that disproportionately cuts resources for people in these communities.
“We know that the ‘rush plan’ will fall particularly hard on communities of color,” Feuer said.
This week, that lawsuit was modified slightly. The plaintiffs are now asking for a preliminary injunction against the Census Bureau’s changes.
Avianna Uribe, manager of census outreach for the L.A. County’s CEO’s office and partner with the state’s census office, agrees that the recent deadline change is a problem.
City and county offices had been publicizing an end date for the count that now abruptly needs to be corrected, she said. And community partners, like Proyecto Pastoral, suddenly needed to ramp up in-person canvassing to reach hard-to-count communities.
“So by cutting that period short, we’re cutting the opportunity to reach those families,” said Uribe, who described the news of the deadline change as “pretty devastating.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an undercount,” she added.
Still, Uribe is trying to be optimistic. She said in the past few weeks, there have been some modest increases in census participation across the county.
She’s hopeful the U.S. Census Bureau will find a way to reach the 45% of households in the city of Los Angeles that haven’t responded to the questionnaire yet. But Uribe said she’s still unclear on what the agency’s strategy is for reaching those residents.
“My biggest question, and our concern here is, how is the Census Bureau going to carry that work out?” Uribe said.
She said the county office has tried to ask the federal agency which neighborhoods would be prioritized for house visits.
“We thought it could be helpful by priming our residents, to tell them what to expect, so they weren’t caught off guard,” Uribe said. “But they weren’t able to tell us the specific areas.”
LAist reached out to the Census Bureau with the same questions: Which LA neighborhoods are being prioritized? What is the strategy for counting L.A.?
The bureau responded in an email without those details, simply stating that according to the U.S. Constitution, all census tracts must be counted.
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.