Tri-Counties face funding loss if 2020 census inaccurate

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(This story originally appeared in the Pacific Coast Business Times here.)

The Tri-Counties face a massive loss of federal funding if there is an undercount of its hard-to-count populations during the 2020 census.

In Ventura County alone, an undercount could mean a potential loss of $2 billion in federal funding over the next decade, said Ventura County Community Foundation CEO Vanessa Bechtel.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Bechtel and other community leaders drew attention to the issue at a roundtable discussion at the Santa Barbara Foundation on June 20.

The 2020 census has drawn controversy in the past year as courts wrestle over a decision that could add a citizenship question to the census form, a question critics believe may discourage migrants from filling out the census.

States like California are implementing preventative community programs to avoid an undercount, which could also result in fewer congressional seats.

California has historically been subject to an undercount, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office — most notably the 2.74 percent undercount for the 1990 census. And for the past two censuses, California’s undercount was significantly higher than national averages and in other states, the LAO said.

A higher hard-to-count population — children, homeless, low-income, low-education, English language learners, undocumented immigrants, and racial or ethnic minorities — leaves California at risk for an undercount.

Bechtel said the potential losses are far too large to be made up by philanthropy and would end up having generational impacts.

An estimated 237,000 people live in hard-to-count neighborhoods across the Tri-Counties, according to census estimates and data from the American Community Survey.

That could mean serious repercussions in funding for programs such as Medicare Part B, SNAP and WIC as well as highway planning and construction.

More than 100 programs rely on census data to distribute more than $675 billion in funds nationally during a fiscal year, according to a 2017 U.S. Department of Commerce study.

Federal funding also accounts for more than one-third of California’s annual budget.

In Santa Barbara County, 5 percent of the population is classified as hard to count and, if uncounted, would result in an approximate loss in revenue of about $43 million per year, according to county Deputy CEO Dennis Bozanich.

He said 35 percent of Santa Barbara County’s budget comes from state and federal funding.

“Suffice to say it’s a significant amount,” Bozanich said.

In San Luis Obispo County, 43 percent of its budget is supported by state and federal funds, and more than 45 percent of Ventura County’s 2019 budget depends on state and federal funds.

Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, is one of the few safe from cuts in funding — for better or for worse — since California has already reached the minimum Federal Medical Assistance Percentage of 50 percent. FMAP determines annual federal funding distribution for medical and social programs such as Medicaid. Legally, California cannot receive fewer funds because of its already low FMAP.

Tri-county budgets, however, are largely dependent on federal and state funding for housing programs that help to maintain affordable housing and implement rental assistance programs crucial to the Central Coast.

“We know we’re already challenged with high cost of housing on the Central Coast, and community development block grants, rental assistance programs, the HOME program — most of these are funded through census-derived data,” Bozanich said.

The California Department of Finance projected that a census undercount could cost the state an estimated $1,000 in federal funding per capita annually. Santa Barbara County estimates the cost would be double, approximating a loss of $2,000 per person annually.

Both Bozanich and Bechtel agree that the domino effect associated with federal funding from census-derived data is grave since various health care, education, housing and local government programs rely heavily on accurate and complete data collected by the census each decade.

Heidi McPherson, president and CEO of the San Luis Obispo Community Foundation, said trend data is crucial from a business standpoint. She said determining the workforce in a community relies on data regarding how much of the community is made up of families or seniors or young adults.

Emphasizing the importance of an accurate count, Bozanich said undercounting people at the lower end of the economic spectrum makes it appear as if there is a wealthier population and the county can sustain assistance programs with less funding — which is inaccurate.

Because the Tri-Counties are not as urbanized as Los Angeles, nor do they have the levels of poverty that come with a highly urbanized area, the dollars collected for building affordable housing are already small.

“It’s really hard in a fairly small, rural county,” Bozanich said. “We don’t have the population base to generate large amounts of money to go into housing.”
With most of the 2020 census going online, it will also be more difficult for rural communities to access the questionnaire

In Ventura County, officials expressed alarm about having a significant number of neighborhood tracts where 40 percent of the people do not have access to the internet.
The census, Bechtel said, is arguably the most significant issue currently facing the community.

• Contact Veronica Graff at

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