(Courtesy photo)

Amid a climate of fear, SF prepares for first online US Census

Worried that an undercount could mean losing out on billions of dollars in federal funding over the next decade, San Francisco plans to pay a number of nonprofits to convince residents to participate in the 2020 census.

The city already struggles to count many hard-to-reach communities, and officials and immigrant advocates now fear that President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies will make it even more difficult to convince residents to provide information to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Given our city’s population growth since 2010 and the racist, sexist and anti-immigrant rants from the White House, it is imperative that our San Francisco 2020 census count is accurate and gives voice to each of our residents,” Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said at a Thursday Government Audit and Oversight Committee hearing on census plans.

The 2020 census will also be the first to ask residents to fill out census information online, raising concerns about those who lack online access or are not proficient in using the internet, such as many seniors.

One of the largest concerns for the participation rate was a citizenship question that was proposed for the census questionnaires. A New York judge court struck down the question in a lawsuit in which City Attorney Dennis Herrera played a role, but the Trump administration is appealing that ruling and has also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

While the federal government does the counting, local jurisdictions like San Francisco are funding efforts to help with the count, as they did in the 2010 Census. The City’s efforts are being led by the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, whose executive director is Adrienne Pon.

“We estimate that about 25 percent of our San Francisco population could be at risk for being undercounted in the 2020 census and that translates to about $4.4 billion over the next decade in lost funding,” Pon said. That’s money that would go toward such things as education, health, transportation and housing.

In addition to funding, the census also determines the amount of congressional representation of states and how political boundaries are redrawn.

In the 2010 count, San Francisco had a census participation rate of 77 percent, according to Pon.

The City has already budgeted $2 million for the outreach effort, including $850,000 a year for nonprofits to do outreach work, such as walking door-to-door and holding events. A request for proposals to obtain the funding is expected to go out this spring. Efforts to ensure residents participate in the census are expected to begin in July.

The City also plans to assemble a Complete Count Committee, as they did in 2009 for the 2010 census, by April. And The City will also open up later this year a Census Assistance Center at 27 Van Ness Ave., near City Hall.

Hong Mei Pang, director of advocacy for Chinese for Affirmative Action, a nonprofit based in Chinatown that has helped with census counts since 1970, said that in the 2010 count they worked with other groups and the US Census Bureau to connect with 50,000 hard-to-count households.

“We really want to use the census as an opportunity to encourage civic partnership and civic engagement of immigrant families from a place of power, not panic,” Pang said.

But even as city officials sought to address the fears, some expressed uncertainty. Supervisor Matt Haney asked if there were any legitimate reasons to fear participating in the census.

“Are there any real fears that are valid that we have that we need to consider or protect against?” he asked.

Pon said, “I do not personally know what this crazy federal government is going to do with the information. We are hoping that they are going to follow the law, which says that you can’t misuse census data collected for any other purposes.”

Supervisor Vallie Brown said counting those in US Department of Housing and Urban Development sites posed challenges. For the largely African-American community in HUD complexes in District 5, “not only do they not trust the federal government but they don’t trust the city either” and in the 2010 count it resulted in a “real inaccurate count,” she said.

She said that in some cases they may have more people living in their homes than allowed or a different family member now occupies a unit than on the lease.

“They didn’t realize it’s never going to be used against them but we could use it to get money to help them,” she said.

Brown said that since the last count 10 years ago, San Francisco has become more expensive and many households have added more roommates to help with the rent without their landlord’s permission. They may fear reporting the actual number of people living there.

Supervisor Ahsha Safai stressed the importance of hiring nonprofits and local residents to do the outreach so that they “can explain to them that this is not something that is going to be used against them, that is not going to be used to enforce any other laws … but will positively impact their lives.”

“A real robust door-to-door strategy, I think that is going to be the most effective,” Safai said.

Laura Melgarejo, an organizer with the nonprofit Poder, said that, “Our community leaders are ready to walk up and own the streets of our neighborhood to ensure that everyone gets counted.”

“In this political climate, having an accurate count will be extremely challenging due to the environment of fear created by the current administration,” Melgarejo said.

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