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Pandemic may have affected Springs census results

While the City of Sonoma’s population change in the past 10 years was negligible – growing from 10,648 in 2010 to 10,739 in 2020, or 0.01% — the Latinx population in the City of Sonoma increased by 21% over that time span, according to data from the 2020 U.S. Census.

Still, many census watchdogs are saying that’s almost certainly an under-count, given how the pandemic threw a wrench in the once-a-decade population tally in 2020 just as community outreach about the headcount was getting underway.

“The census kick-off day was April 1 and it was right in the beginning of shutdown,” recalled Angie Sanchez, who helped lead census-education efforts last year for the nonprofit La Luz Center. “So when the on-the-ground outreach was to begin we had to completely shift our strategy.”

Suddenly schools were closed and community events vanished – and so did the ability to reach many of the underserved populations most prone to being missed in the census.

The question of a potential undercount may partly be addressed in the coming months in what’s called the Post-Enumeration Survey, a smaller U.S. Census Bureau follow-up survey intended to gauge the accuracy of the larger count by independently surveying a sample of the population.

The Post-Enumeration Survey is expected to last into 2022 – but not everyone needs to wait months for the results in order to hazard a guess as to whether some underserved populations in the Sonoma Valley may have been undercounted.

“I definitely think that, although there was an increase (shown for the county Latinx population), I do believe that due to COVID we were not able to get to everybody that we wished we would have been able to,” said Sanchez about her team’s census-outreach efforts, which focused on Latinx communities in the Springs area.

“This potentially affects tons of policy issues in those areas — like housing — one of the most difficult issues in the state and region.” — David McCuan, a Sonoma resident and political professor at Sonoma State University

The Springs count

The overall countywide population grew by about 1%, reflecting a similar plateau in growth in the last decade to the City of Sonoma. Likewise, the county’s 17.4% increase in its Latinx community was close to Sonoma’s 21% — both increases in the county’s and the city’s Latinx populations represented about 4% of their area’s overall populations.

However, while the county and City of Sonoma saw relatively stable populations since the last count, the Springs area north of the city limits decreased in overall numbers by 441 residents, or about 7%.

Sanchez believes that’s probably a sign of an undercount in an area with an estimated 44% Latinx population.

While she concedes other factors likely contributed to the decrease, including the high cost of living and the wildfires of recent years, she still feels “there were some hard-to-count populations we missed.”

Best laid census plans

Prior to the pandemic, Sanchez and her La Luz census-outreach colleagues had ambitious plans to educate the Latinx community about the importance of taking part in the census – from popup events at schools to creating a census card game, “Censoteria,” based on the Mexican Bingo-style game “Loteria.”

They wanted people to know the census is more than a simple head count – it determines where more than $1.5 trillion in federal funds will be distributed in local communities, affecting such programs as CalFresh, which is used by more than 40% of Latinos in Sonoma County, according to La Luz.

But that message was largely stifled by a year of on-again, off-again shutdowns, canceled community events and public safety guidelines barring almost all gatherings of more than a dozen people. Suddenly census-outreach efforts had to “get creative,” said Sanchez, by going virtual or going to food-distribution centers and reaching people in their cars.

“Everything we did virtually and socially distanced, I do think was a huge step toward educating the Latino community about the Census,” she said. But it did prevent them from reaching some of the places they felt would be most effective — the schools and “going into the fields to talk to farmworkers.”

The effects of an undercount

David McCuan, a Sonoma resident and political professor at Sonoma State University, said another reason a potential undercount would be harmful locally is that the U.S. Census also determines representation.

First and foremost, congressional apportionment is decided by the U.S. Census. This year, California lost a seat in the House of Representatives for the first time in its 170-year history.

But at a hyper-local level, he said, an “undercount disproportionately affects disaffected, emerging communities just as many cities in the local areas move to district-based elections,” which are intended to give great voice to such communities.

Additionally, McCuan said, an increase in registered voters in disaffected communities – what he calls the Rising American Electorate, or RAE – is largely based in the “emerging suburbs, aka the ‘exurbs.’”

“These areas are quite fluid in the types and depth of the emerging voter population,” McCuan said in an email to the Index-Tribune. “This wouldn’t be Sonoma proper — but would include the Springs and areas around the Springs, for example. This potentially affects tons of policy issues in those areas — like housing — one of the most difficult issues in the state and region.”

Lastly, McCuan believes the momentum gained over the last decade in electing “a more diverse, more Democratic set of officeholders” may be slowed. “An undercount could potentially change that movement,” McCuan added.

An ongoing Census dialogue

If there’s a lesson in the pandemic’s effect on Census outreach efforts, Sanchez believes it’s to not wait 10 years between educating people about its importance.

“Even now with the census over and the next one in 2030, I continue to talk to people about it,” said Sanchez. “I’m really proud of the work we did and that so many more people know about the census because of it.”

Her only regret is the way COVID changed the dynamic of their outreach. “A lot of families were double up and tripling up in living quarters” and couldn’t be reached, she said.

The educating of the community needs to continue, she insists.

“Next year, maybe we begin an annual April 1 countdown event – nine more years to the census!” said Sanchez. “It needs to be an ongoing conversation.”

Email Jason Walsh at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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