County funding counting on residents

Tulare County urges residents to complete their Census questionnaire or jeopardize millions in federal funding for its poorest residents

By Reggie Ellis

@Reggie_SGN

TULARE COUNTY – Few California counties count on the U.S. Census more than Tulare County. The influx of nearly $200 million in federal funding provides essential services for a variety of programs that benefit its poorest residents. But Tulare County is missing out on even more federal dollars by not having all of its residents accounted for in the decennial census.

As Tulare County incomes continue to fall behind the rising cost of housing, the county will count on the 2020 Census more so than the nationwide population polls of the past. This year, an undercount would mean Tulare County could lose a proportionate amount of the $115 billion in federal spending programs. That would hit the county particularly hard as more than a quarter of residents (27%) live in poverty.

Tulare County has the highest share of residents enrolled in Medicaid (55%), highest rate of food stamps (26%), one of the highest participation rates for free and reduced priced school lunches (76%), and is reliant on many other federal programs including section 8 housing vouchers, Pell Grant education funding, community development block grants for public safety, and Title I funding for schools, which covers everything from curriculum to counseling.

In addition to funding, Census counts help local government’s plan where future schools should be built, which roads should be widened and shift bus routes to follow growth patterns. It is also used to determine political representation in the California State Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Our job is to explain how important it is because a lot of people don’t think it’s a big deal,” Tulare County Supervisor Eddie Valero said. “If we want funds coming back to our community than we need to take this very seriously. People need to stand up and be counted.”

Internet Census

The U.S. Census Bureau will send letters to 95% of Tulare County housing units beginning on March 12 inviting them to respond to the 2020 Census’ online form. The remaining 5% will be hand delivered in areas that only have P.O. Boxes or simply don’t receive any mail at all, such as Traver, Lemon Cove, Earlimart, Richgrove, Three Rivers and more remote mountain communities. This is the first Census that will be using the internet to collect information. The online form will be available in 13 different languages. The letter will include a 12-digit Census ID unique to your address which you will need to begin the online form. If you lose your Census ID, you can still complete the form by answering a few additional questions. The questions will need to be filled out in one session or the online form will start over. Residents should also only use forward and back buttons within the form and not those at the top of their browser window, which may end the session.

Anyone needing assistance to fill out a questionnaire can call the toll free number and get assistance in English (844-330-2020), Spanish (844-468-2020), Portuguese (844-474-2020) and 10 other languages (Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Arabic, Korean, Polish, French, Haitain Creole and Japanese. There is also a telephone display device phone line at 844-467-2020.

Reminders to fill out the Census online or over the phone will be mailed out between March 16-24 and again from March 26 through April 3. April 1 is considered Census Day, and marks the point in time that all Census questions are geared toward answering. For example, the question about where people live and sleep should be answered for April 1, 2020, not the day you are filling out the questionnaire, such as college student who is only home during holiday breaks and summer months. If residents have not responded by April 8, either online or by phone, they will receive a hard copy questionnaire between April 8-16. The last mailing will be a postcard from April 20-27.

Those who do not respond to the invitation, reminders or hard copy by May 1 will be visited by an enumerator, a Census Bureau employee who will visit homes to follow up on households with missing information or no information. The employees will be wearing a blue vest, typically carrying a satchel and are required to have a Census Bureau-issued badge with their name, photo, expiration date of their credential and a watermark from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“Tulare County is the second most undercounted counties with the exception of Imperial County,” Valero said.

Valero represents many of northern Tulare County’s unincorporated communities as the District 4 representative on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. He said he is concerned that the Census Bureau is pushing online responses when many of his constituents don’t have internet access.

The San Joaquin Valley Census Research Project, published in January 2019 by the San Joaquin Valley Health Fund, found that one-quarter (24%) of the Latino immigrants living in the valley lack internet access. The most prevalent mode of Internet access is via cell phone, which can make surveys more difficult to navigate. Older Latinos were less likely to have internet access than younger respondents, 90% of those 25 and younger compared with less than 20% of those 65 and older. The report said Tulare, Madera and Merced counties would be “disproportionately affected by patterns of undercount identified in the research because they have higher proportions of foreign-born Latino non-citizens than other counties in the region.”

Valero said the Tulare County Complete Count Committee is planning events throughout the county in April and May where residents can come as a family, friends and neighbors to ask questions together and to get in-person assistance in a face-to-face conversation with someone who speaks their language, possibly someone from within their community.

“When people can make connections with people and get answers to their questions they are more inclined to follow suit and fill out the forms,” Valero said. “Nobody likes strangers knocking on their door.”

If a resident is leery of someone at their door, they can confirm they are a Census employee by entering the name on their badge into the Census Bureau Staff Search, https://www.census.gov/cgi-bin/main/email.cgi, or by calling the California Regional Office at 213-314-6500 or toll–free at 800-923-8282. If it is determined that the visitor who came to your door does not work for the Census Bureau, contact your local police department. It is a federal crime to impersonate a federal official, and anyone who violates this law is subject to imprisonment.

To avoid scammers, the U.S. Census Bureau said its employees will never ask for the following: Payment to fill out the questionnaire; ocial Security number; financial information, such as bank account or credit card numbers; money or donations. Additionally, the Census Bureau will not contact you on behalf of a political party.

No questions on citizenship

Most of the questions on the Census are demographical, including number of people in the household, familial relations between those people, sex and sexual orientation, race and homeownership. Even the question about a resident’s country of origin is not related to citizenship or immigration status, it is simply to determine the ethnic makeup of the United States.

The question that has grabbed the most headlines won’t even appear on the Census. President Donald Trump first posed the idea of adding a citizenship question to the Census last spring. After a series of district court decisions blocking the question, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately remanded to the case to the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau.

“There is no question asking residents for their citizenship or immigration status [on the Census],” said Barbara Pilegard, associate regional planner for the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG).

Pilegard, as well as TCAG principal planner Robert Brady, are spearheading the efforts of the Tulare County Complete County Committee. The committee is a subset of the California Complete Count Committee, whose goal is to accurately count the number of people living in the state.

A major battle over participation in this year’s Census is the fear that a citizenship question remains. Under Title 13 of the U.S. Code, the Census Bureau cannot release any identifiable information about individuals, households, or businesses, even to law enforcement agencies. In other words, the FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot use your personal information against you in any way. All Census Bureau staff take a lifetime oath to protect the personal data of residents and violations come with a penalty of up to $250,000 and five years in prison. The law states the information collected by the Census may only be used for statistical purposes and no other purpose.

“The Census is a count of every person living in the United States, not every citizen in the United States,” said Cindy Quezada, a senior program officer with the Sierra Health Foundation.

Even your address is protected under a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision that addresses cannot be disclosed through courts or through a citizens request using the Freedom Of Information Act requiring the disclosure of public documents. “No court or law can subpoena census responses,” the Census Bureau states on its website.

Quezada has extensively studied this year’s Census as one of the authors of the San Joaquin Valley Latino Immigrants survey of the Census. The study underscored the importance of the Census to Latino residents who benefit the most from federal programs tied to population data based on the decennial Census. The report stated that a Valley-wide undercount of Latino immigrants could decrease the Census 2020 for area by about 188,000 persons, costing the eight-county region about $200 million per year—simply from the Latino undercount and possibly more than $2 billion over the next decade.

Quezada is currently an employee for The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, which announced $3.8 million in Census outreach funding for 15 community based nonprofits in Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Kern and Inyo counties earlier this year. The group is focused on reaching “hard-to-count” Census tracks, where there are barriers to language, literacy, internet access and transportation. These tend to be rural areas where multiple families may be living under one roof. These families are particularly hard to count due to concerns with citizenship, immigration status, financial scams, identity theft and more violent crimes.

“The Census Bureau takes precautions to using your data by adding noise to the data, making it impossible to connect any personal information to an address,” Quezada said. “After it is collected, that information is aggregated and becomes anonymous.”

Hard to count areas are considered those Census tracts where less than three-quarters of residences responded to the questionnaire mailed out during the 2010 Census. One of the hardest to count areas was in the south county communities of Earlimart and Richgrove. Quezada said Sierra Health Foundation can assist residents in filling out the questionnaire by translating in languages that are not part of the mailing, such as Hmong or Punjabi.

“Tulare County has a Laotian population living in households that may not be able to read anything the Census Bureau send out,” Quezada said.

Hard-to-count

While rural areas tend to be undercounted, more urban areas in northeast Visalia are among the hardest to count in Tulare County. According to the Census Bureau’s Hard To County Tracts in the Nation, from Houston Avenue north to Avenue 320 and from Dinuba Boulevard east to Road 160 had a Census questionnaire return rate of less than 65% for the 2010 Census. Other more urban HTC areas included parts of Tulare, Lindsay and Exeter.

During a presentation to the Visalia City Council in February, communications director Allison Mackey said Visalia has four hard-to-count (HTC) tracks from South Akers to South Demaree, South Demaree and South Mooney Boulevard, North Mooney and North Santa Fe, and area between North Santa Fe all the way to the north border of Farmersville.

As part of its outreach effort, Mackey said Visalia has verified its boundaries with the Census Bureau, created a social media campaign entitled, I Count and #VisaliaCounts, advertised on city-owned property and will be providing Census information at the 2020 Dia de los Ninos event on Sunday, April 26 at the 1 Manuel F. Hernandez Community Center, the only City community center or office within a HTC track. The city has planned additional events ranging from Senior Games to Fiesta en la Plaza and including two Q&A’s at the Visalia Senior Center.

The city has also armed its police officers with information on the 2020 Census so that they can handle calls and anticipate questions that may come through dispatch. When enumerators begin canvasing door-to-door to addresses that did not respond to the survey invitation, Mackey said the city is anticipating a potential increase in 911 and non-emergency calls.

Mackey said cities and counties could have a first look at the overall data by December, but don’t expect an official numbers until May or June of 2021.

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