Christian Arana and Jacqueline Martinez Garcel: How the coronavirus could endanger the 2020 census
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Christian Arana and Jacqueline Martinez Garcel: How the coronavirus could endanger the 2020 census

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The census is a constitutionally mandated process that has occurred since 1790. It has been administered during a world war, earthquakes, the Great Depression - and now a pandemic.

The coronavirus presents a particular challenge to the 2020 census - which kicked off earlier this month - because human transmission of the virus has prompted public health officials to discourage public gatherings and limit social interactions. Most of us are self-isolating at home.

Historically, the census involves workers knocking on doors, and rallies and community meetings to raise awareness. Many such events have been canceled, and the Census Bureau is emphasizing digital outreach. "It has never been easier to respond ... without having to meet a census taker," the bureau announced recently.

Yet grassroots organizations and local census "complete count committees" had been planning to use public spaces such as libraries and community centers to raise awareness about the census - and help communities fill out the survey. New and emerging guidelines regarding the coronavirus will likely hamstring their efforts to meet with as many people as possible face-to-face.

Limiting public interactions poses a particular challenge for the count of Latinos and immigrants, who often depend on in-person interactions to help them understand the census - and its importance to their economic and political power.

If you don't respond to the census by late April, census takers will probably knock on your door beginning in late May, although the Census Bureau will continue to monitor the impact of the coronavirus on that plan.

Though no physical interaction is required to complete the count, concerns over contracting the virus could affect the traditional door-to-door process.

California's Dianne Feinstein is among a coalition of U.S. senators who sent a letter to the Census Bureau's director on March 4 urging it to be prepared to assess whether concerns about the virus are "depressing census response rates" and to develop contingency plans to help ensure "a full and accurate population count."

Regardless of any challenges, the mission of the census has always remained the same: By trying to count every person in our country, communities attain their rightful share of political representation and federal resources for vital programs such as the early childhood program Head Start and Section 8 housing, which provides subsidies to low-income residents.

The coronavirus is yet another major reminder of why it's important for our state to have access to accurate census data.

An accurate census count can help ensure that we have the necessary public health services to provide a safety net for those in need, whether that means properly funding community health clinics, ensuring child care needs are met or devoting resources to emergency preparedness. Based on the 2010 census, California received nearly $56 billion for Medi-Cal, its version of Medicaid.

On March 12, many households across the country received an invitation in the mail to fill out the survey, and more than 11 million people have already responded as of this writing, according to the Census Bureau.

Do your part by giving the census prompt attention - and preventing a census taker from having to knock on your door. It can be filled out online, by phone or via a paper questionnaire that will be sent to households in mid-April as a reminder to fill out the survey.

Ordinary residents can also play a significant role in ensuring an accurate census count. They can raise awareness on social media by reposting key census information from trusted sources such as the state census office. They can engage with relatives, friends and co-workers to see whether they need help understanding how to fill out the census. The young, who are digital natives, can become involved by going online and connecting with neighbors to help them fill out the census.

Local ethnic media, including radio, should augment census awareness campaigns, especially for non-English speakers. In California, multilingual radio stations such as Radio Bilingue in the Central Valley and KBBF-FM in the wine country of Northern California are running near-continuous public service announcements on why census participation matters.

In 2020, the coronavirus and the census count are inextricably linked. People across the state and country should view filling out the census the same way they do the increased need to wash their hands - as a civic duty.

Christian Arana is the policy director and Jacqueline Martinez Garcel is the chief executive officer of the Latino Community Foundation.

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