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2020 Census Undercount Concerns Voiced at Roundtable

Attorney General Meets with Local Agencies About Citizenship Question

Photo: Paul Wellman California Attorney General Xavier Becerra j with Santa Barbara County Assistant CEO Dennis Bozanich and Ventura County Community Foundation CEO Vanessa Bechtel talk with media after having a meeting on the 2020 Census.

Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties are the 58th and 59th counties most at risk of a census undercount in the nation, said president and CEO of Ventura County Community Foundation Vanessa Bechtel at a roundtable meeting with Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Becerra met with Santa Barbara and Ventura County Census committees on June 20 at the Santa Barbara Foundation to discuss initiatives underway to ensure every single person in the counties fills out a census. The Complete Count committees formed the complete count in part as a response to the citizenship question that is being proposed for the 2020 census and that the Supreme Court is slated to decide any day now. 

Dependent on the Supreme Court’s decision is a question asking whether the individuals in a household are citizens may be added to the 2020 census. The possibility has local and state officials fearful that undocumented community members or mixed-status families may avoid filling it out, leading to an undercount. 

In Santa Barbara, approximately 15 percent of the population is undocumented, one of the highest percentages statewide. If this population is not counted, Santa Barbara would lose out on roughly $126 million a year in funding, every year for the next 10 years. About 21,000 other individuals, roughly 5 percent of the county’s population, are deemed “hard to count” for other reasons, including being a racial or ethnic minority, homeless, a college student, elderly, or a young child. This 5 percent counts for $43 million in funding each year until the next census. 

During the roundtable, local officials talked about initiatives already underway and brainstormed ideas to get everyone counted. Cochair of the Santa Barbara Committee and Santa Barbara Foundation Grant Writing Director Pedro Paz talked about expanding the number of trusted partners working with the counties to get community members to fill out the census. Gabino Aguirre with Ventura County Counts suggested flooding the media with “know your rights” messages and countering negative messages that may dissuade community members from filling it out. 

There are concerns from undocumented folks that answering the citizenship question on the census could later be used to deport them. California State University Channel Islands Professor Chris Williamson, who teaches a demography course with a focus on the 2020 census, clarified that even if folks decide to skip the citizenship question on the census, they will still be counted. He also said it’s not likely that census workers will go knocking on doors of folks who do not answer that question. “They’re more concerned with nonresponse addresses,” he said. Becerra emphasized that it is against the law for the federal government to use census information against an individual or to share the information with other federal agencies. 

The census count determines everything from local funding of law enforcement and social services to the number of state representatives in Congress. An undercount puts both of those in jeopardy and will have generational consequences, said Bechtel. To aid in the efforts for a complete county, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties received $500,000 and $700,000, respectively, from the state, and there’s a possibility of additional funds, said Dennis Bozanich, cochair of the Santa Barbara Complete Count Committee and Deputy CEO for the County of Santa Barbara. 

With only one chance to get it right, the state is committed to supporting local communities and partnering with them to get the message out, said Becerra. “We’re paying taxes but won’t get back our tax dollars if everyone’s not counted,” he added. “We are going to continue to do everything we believe is necessary to make sure we protect our people and our state and to get back our tax dollars.”

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