By Ashley Orona
HUNTINGTON PARK — Elected officials and community leaders from southeastern Los Angeles County came together for a press conference Aug. 14 at City Hall to raise awareness about the importance of filling out the 2020 U.S. Census form.
The press conference was a call-to-action for residents living in Southeast Los Angeles County communities to ensure a complete census count before the Sept. 30 deadline, which the federal government recently moved up from Oct. 31. As of mid-August, many of the local communities had a census response rate below 60%.
Elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, D-San Pedro, and city council members from Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Lynwood and South Gate, as well as representatives from community organizations, highlighted the important role the census plays in determining the allocation of federal funding and other resources to the region.
They also addressed common census misconceptions and how a complete count could impact the area’s response to COVID-19.
“It’s so important right now because of COVID-19 that we continue to send the message that we have to have everybody fill out the census,” Barragán said. “The amount of dollars we get for hospitals, for school nutrition programs, that we get for so many programs is so important [and is influenced by a complete count].”
The census also determines how congressional districts are drawn, according to Barragán, and could influence various communities’ representation at the federal level.
As of Aug. 12, four out of 11 communities in the Southeast Los Angeles region have census response rates at or below the county rate of 60%, according to the SELA Collaborative, a regional civic engagement coalition. Six communities have response rates at or below the statewide rate of 65%, while the city of Norwalk is the only one above the county and state response rate with 68%.
Southeast Los Angeles, which already suffers from high poverty rates, environmental pollution and overcrowded housing, is considered the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an article from the Los Angeles Times. The analysis showed the region accounting for 19% of new infections, even though it comprises only 12% of the county’s population.
Multiple officials at the press conference named the above factors, as well as the large number of essential workers from the region, as reasons why the virus is spreading more rapidly there. An undercount of the census will negatively impact those communities by not allocating the necessary resources to combat the inequities.
“One of the things I think the pandemic has reminded us and opened our eyes to is that our families in the Southeast are essential,” Huntington Park City Councilwoman Karina Macias said in Spanish. “They are the ones working at supermarkets, going to work every morning, they are the ones without protection when they work. That’s the importance of counting these families.”
The same inequities that allowed for the rapid spread of the coronavirus also make Southeast residents harder to count. Many residents in this region are immigrants who primarily speak Spanish and have a lack of trust in the government.
The Trump administration recently attempted to institute changes that were widely regarded as ensuring the undercount of certain communities. The U.S. Census Bureau fought to include a question about citizenship that would have deterred many undocumented immigrants or non-citizens from participating in the Census, before the Supreme Court blocked its inclusion last year.
Officials at the press conference debunked the myth that the Census would still include a citizenship question and tried to assure people that their information would be kept private. Around 44% of the Southeast LA’s population are immigrants, with 126,000 lacking citizenship status, according to the SELA Collaborative.
Census outreach strategies were also delayed due to pandemic stay-at-home orders, making it more difficult for communities to make up for an undercount that occurred when the census was last conducted a decade ago.
“In 2010, our communities were undercounted and we knew that going into 2020 our communities were considered hard to count,” said SELA Collaborative Executive Director Wilma Franco. “We knew that our communities would need that face-to-face support. These strategies were no longer viable the minute COVID hit.”
Elected officials at the press conference also criticized the Census Bureau’s announcement in early August that it would end the census count a month early, saying it would lead to an undercount in communities of color. They urged community members to be open to census takers coming to their doors in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 30 deadline to help them complete the form.