2020 Census: Ventura County Risks Undercounting Residents; Groups Work to Bridge Gap

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The stakes are big in the 2020 Census, and so are the obstacles.

That was the message this week as 70 people gathered at the Ventura County Community Foundation’s headquarters to learn how to turn out an accurate count in hard-to-reach areas where response rates are traditionally low.

Ventura County has a high risk of undercounting residents, based on the number of hard-to-reach areas and the limited funds for outreach, said Vanessa Bechtel, CEO of the foundation.

That means a potential loss of millions of dollars in federal funding for key services over 10 years, she said. Included are health care and nutritional programs, business loans and services for seniors and disabled people, Bechtel said.

Statewide, the figure also affects the number of seats California has in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The biggest areas with a high likelihood of being undercounted lie in south and central Oxnard, a large area northeast of Ventura along Highway 33, downtown Santa Paula and a swath that runs from the east side of Santa Paula through Fillmore to the Los Angeles County line.

Most have high proportions of people who are foreign-born, living in poverty, have limited English proficiency, rent their housing and contain children under age 5, according to a state report shared with participants at the event.

During a panel discussion, leaders of Ventura County organizations that serve residents likely to be undercounted shared ideas for bridging the gaps. They included representatives of groups serving immigrants, homeless people, African-Americans, Filipino-Americans and Arab-Americans.

Several said gaining trust would be essential.

That means personal contact, approaching residents with phrases and gestures that are familiar to their cultures and showing them how the results could help their children live better lives, panelists said.

Appealing to their personal concerns is more effective than asking them why they don’t want to fill out an important document, said Maricela Morales, executive director of the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy.

“Lead with issues, not with shame or guilt,” she said.

Others said they use radio messaging, a religious approach and kindness to reach their audiences.

“We rely on faith,” said Jim Gilmer, an Oxnard man who advocates for the interests of African-Americans and people of African descent.

Amal Merchant of the Islamic Society of Simi Valley said Arab-Americans are at risk of being undercounted because of language, poverty, housing instability and fear.

“Now more than ever with the anti-Muslim rhetoric and spread of Islamophobia, there is a lack of trust and fear in the Arab Muslim community,” she said.

The Census Bureau will be asking residents to answer the questionnaires online but will approach people in person if they don’t respond. Merchant said learning etiquette and basic phrases will help build rapport in that case.

Advocates say the online form could deter responses because many neighborhoods in hard-to-count areas may not have computers in homes. And they are worried about the federal government’s plan to add a question asking whether the respondent is a U.S. citizen.

Morales said the question will absolutely add to the barriers, but she hopes pending litigation will keep it off the form. In either case, she supported participating in the census.

The answers on the census form are supposed to be confidential.

All staff working with confidential information at the Census Bureau take a lifetime oath to protect it, federal officials say. Unlawful disclosure is a federal crime punishable by a $250,000 fine or five years in prison, or both.

California officials are holding events up and down the state, including the one in Camarillo, to get a complete count. The director of the state effort said that if 1 million people are missed in California, that could mean $20 billion lost in federal funds over 10 years.

“I really believe it’s the foundation of our democracy,” said Director Ditas Katague.

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