“We Can’t Count on Washington”: A California Funder Preps for the 2020 Census

 photo: Arthimedes/shutterstock

photo: Arthimedes/shutterstock

A public health funder based in California just kicked in $10 million to aid the state’s $90 million efforts to get a fair and accurate census count in 2020. The count determines the destination of federal dollars, the breakdown of representation in Washington and even influences where private investments flow.

Experts are increasingly alarmed about achieving a fair and accurate count in 2020, as a leadership vacuum at the Census Bureau, low funding, new technology and rising distrust in government combine to create the perfect storm.

There’s a growing national movement among foundations to bolster the 2020 Census. A subgroup of the Democracy Funders Collaborative is leading much of the work. The group’s members include the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Bauman Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Democracy Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Wallace H. Coulter Foundation. Last month, the group rallied more than 300 grantmaking executives to sign a letter to the Commerce Department in protest against adding a question on citizenship to the survey.

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Regional foundations have also been stepping up. In New England, the Barr Foundation pledged $1 million to support local get-out-the-count efforts. Several local funders in New York have come together to fund work in the city. The California Endowment’s $10 million pledge fits in with increased awareness and funding from regional funders of the challenges facing the 2020 count.

At first glance, the census may seem like an unusual focus for a public health foundation. However, dig a little deeper and it becomes clear how it fits with the endowment’s history and ethos. The funder, which focuses most of its giving in California, takes a very wide-lens approach to public health philanthropy. Past grants have supported advocacy work, racial equity, criminal justice reform and immigrants at risk of deportation. The census is no different.

“We think even more fundamentally, people’s health is often determined by a sense of belonging. Nothing gets to the core of that more than whether a human being counts or not,” said Daniel Zingale, the endowment’s senior vice president. “Having large groups of people literally not count in the eyes of their government has a very negative effect on the health and well-being of a state.” 

The stakes are especially high in California. As the country’s most populous state, with nearly 40 million residents, getting a fair and accurate count is always challenging, Zingale said. For starters, more than 200 languages are spoken in the state, which presents language barriers. The state is ethnically and culturally diverse. The state also encompasses a lot of geography, and census efforts need to balance targeting crowded urban neighborhoods with reaching remote, rural regions.  

Zingale fears that getting a good count in 2020 will be even harder than usual.  

The most controversial challenge facing the 2020 Census is the Trump Administration’s attempt to add a question on citizenship to the survey. Several states, including California, have challenged the move, citing fears that the question could lead to undercounting of the immigrant population. The Constitution requires the country’s population—not just citizens—to be counted every 10 years. 

“California has moved through and beyond our divisive period around immigration, and there’s a general consensus and understanding here that all Californians are contributing to our economy, our tax base and our culture,” Zingale said. “We know that’s at odds with the predominant view in Washington now, so the citizenship question is perceived as hostile to our core values and vision of a thriving state.” 

California is home to more immigrants than any other state in the country. More than 10 million immigrants live in the state, which accounts for about a quarter of the total immigrant population in the United States, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Many fear that the citizenship question and the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants through draconian and highly visible policies, including separating families who come across the border, will discourage immigrant communities—documented and undocumented—from answering the survey. In a state like California with a high immigrant population, that could have devastating effects on the count.  

HTC 2020, a mapping tool managed by the CUNY Mapping Service at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, estimates that nearly 10 million Californians live in hard-to-count neighborhoods.

“It’s always challenging. It’s just made so much more difficult when the perception is that Washington is not interested in our successful count,” Zingale said. “There’s even a lot of fear out here that turning personal information over to Washington could pose a danger to the cohesion of families.”

The foundation has pledged $10 million to complement the state’s efforts to get out the count. The plan is to fill in the gaps in state funding efforts by focusing on more local, community-based work.

The foundation’s money will bolster trusted, grassroots organizations in communities with hard-to-count populations and peer-to-peer communication. The idea is that people trust organizations in their communities, friends, neighbors and family members more than they do the government. The hope is that if trusted messengers tell them they can safely participate in the census, they’re more likely to fill out the survey.

“In these times, the people Californians trust most are their friends, neighbors and the people they’re connected to, often via social media,” Zingale said. “So we’ve created investments to helping people spread the word person to person.”

The state’s $90 million pledge is a promising start, Zingale said, but more funds will be needed to get a full count. He pegs the number needed closer to $200 million. He calls on the next governor to continue backing the work and for other foundations to get onboard.

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