The triple-whammy of Trump, COVID-19, and wildfire displacement are creating a drastic census undercount in NorCal, with congressional seats and billions of dollars on the line.
Even under today’s dark orange gloom of Mordor in which our body clocks are struggling to function, U.S. Census enumerators are out there knocking on doors, masked up, with their signature laptop bags in tow. They were also out there throughout the hundred-degree holiday weekend, perhaps aware, perhaps not, of an unprecedented Saturday night legal ruling to keep them counting through October, rather than the Trump-preferred early demise that would have stopped the counts as early as September 18. That legal fight continues, but more importantly, so does the counting.
Yet we now learn the count is not going particularly well even here in our fair city, as the Chronicle reports that our Census response rates are “proving downright mediocre,” and about 4 percent worse than 2010. That may sound like small change, but it’s big bucks — an estimated $20,000 in federal funds per counted person, adding up to around tens of billions of dollars. Plus, you know, losing congressional seats that could instead go to Trump boat parade territory.
Have a look at the graphic above, current as of today via the U.S. Census. The short story is that darker green is better. The longer story is that according to non-response follow-up (NRFU, or in plain English, “a door knocker has counted people who didn’t respond online or via email”), only about 64.6 percent of San Francisco has been counted. While the greater Bay Area is doing better, currently about 35 percent of San Francisco is going uncounted, primarily in Bayview-Hunters Point, Chinatown, and the Tenderloin.
SFist has heard from Census field supervisors who say that an unusual number of people are simply declining to answer the doorbell, be it for COVID-19 fears, or concern over Trumpian prosecution of immigrant communities.
“You don’t want to blame everything on the Trump administration, but we can,” SF Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs executive director Adrienne Pon told the Chronicle. “They’ve done their damage.”
Yet the count is severely more challenged in the North Bay, after all, it’s harder to count people who are being evacuated. KQED reports on a combination of wildfires and Census staffing cuts that are torching any chance of an accurate count up that way.
While Saturday’s ruling provides an extension for door-knockers, most of them had already been laid off. “It is difficult to bring back field staff once we have terminated their employment,” a Census official is quoted as saying.
And so it looks like the race to the finish line of the 2020 Census will not be a race, but instead a legal back-and-forth where the count can just be ended immediately if a judge rules a certain way. A September 17 hearing in a US District Court could potentially allow the count to continue as planned through October 31, or set up an immediate mass layoff of Census workers whether or not their work is done.
In other words, much darker skies could be ahead.