Despite challenges, Fresno groups aim for a complete 2020 Census count

Fresno County prepares for Census 2020

Jesus Martinez, a member of the California Complete Count Committee, talks about the importance of the 2020 U.S. Census and ensuring that everyone is counted. Video recorded on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, at Gaston Middle School in southwest Fresno, CA.
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Jesus Martinez, a member of the California Complete Count Committee, talks about the importance of the 2020 U.S. Census and ensuring that everyone is counted. Video recorded on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, at Gaston Middle School in southwest Fresno, CA.

The every-10-year U.S. Census is still a year away, but a coalition of local organizations is formally launching their efforts to make sure that every person gets counted in Fresno County – a region where language barriers, poverty and demographics pose challenges to the task.

By some estimates, almost two out of every 10 Fresno County residents “belong to a group that is historically undercounted” in the decenniel census, said Kaya Herron, one of several co-chairs of the Fresno County Complete Count Committee and a representative of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce.

The potential for undercounting is troubling to organizers because the census provides the basis for determining the number of representatives to Congress allocated for each state, as well as how billions of dollars in federal funds are spread to communities based on population.

“We want to make sure every resident is counted once, and only once, and in the right place,” Herron said during a kickoff event Tuesday in front of Rutherford B. Gaston Middle School in southwest Fresno.

Jesus Martinez, executive director of the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, also represents the Valley on the California Complete Count Committee appointed last year by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

He said he believes changes to the census process may hamper, rather than advance, an accurate count.

Those revisions include changing largely to an online census questionnaire instead of paper forms mailed to addresses, and the specter that possible inclusion of a citizenship question could depress participation among immigrant groups that are either fearful or distrustful of government.

The 2020 census "will be unlike any other in our nation's history" and save billions of dollars, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency says it will use different innovative tools to get the most accurate and cost effective count. This me

“The 2020 Census has a number of innovations this time around that are going to make it more difficult for some community members who fall into the category of hard to count to participate in the census,” Martinez said. Low literacy levels, lack of internet access, homelessness, and rural areas where some addresses don’t have regular mail service all represent problems that the census needs to overcome.

“So what we have done over the past few months is work with local-level coalitions and groups like the ones here in Fresno County to begin to organize” and get the word out to all parts of the community about the importance of responding to the Census in April 2020, he added.

“We have to ensure that those hard-to-count communities do participate as well as possible.”

The factors that make for a hard-to-count area include lack of internet access; vacant, renter-occupied and overcrowded housing units; the proportion of residents who are foreign-born or limited-English-speaking; and the percentage of people who are low-education, living in poverty or receiving government assistance.

Online challenges

At a March 22 conference for journalists in Los Angeles, regional Census field operations director James Christy said the United States Census Bureau expects 60 percent of the population to answer the questionnaire via the internet.

But for those with no or limited internet access, people can participate in the census by telephone or using the paper forms that have been the staple of the bureau for years. In some instances, census workers can visit addresses where residents have not responded online, by phone or by mail to complete the counting.

Also at the Los Angeles conference, California Complete Count director Ditas Katague said the state is trying to get cellular phone companies to make responding to the Census by phone “minute-neutral” — to not count against the allowances of minutes included in monthly prepaid and other cellular phone plans.

“If you’re poor, do you want to burn minutes answering the Census?” she asked.

Fears about online security are another concern for the census process, said Rosalind Gold, chief public policy officer with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

“Will people trust doing the Census online in an environment of cybersecurity concerns?” she said. “It’s important for people to know the internet is not the only way to go.”

Many Latinos, she added, prefer to respond by mail or wait for an in-person enumerator” to come to their house for the count.

In Fresno, the coalition of community organizations spans a range of ethnic and demographic representation, in hopes that people who are already involved and engaged in the communities – including health care providers, church and civic leaders and people with informal influence in neighborhoods – can encourage as many residents as possible to put aside their fears and concerns and take part in the census.

“Every person counts and must be counted,” Herron said. “We want to decrease the barriers to participation.”

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.