PD Editorial: In the census, California counted
It’s two years out from the 2020 U.S. Census, and an independent review has concluded that Californians did a great job making sure they were counted. The state invested heavily in the census to ensure accuracy, and it paid off.
The Public Policy Institute of California crunched the numbers and reviewed national studies to see how closely the official population tally reflected reality. PPIC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that studies policy issues in California.
The top-line result is that statistically, the count was on target. The analysis found a slight (0.47%) overcount. That means the census likely counted a few Californians who weren’t actually there. But the overcount fell within the margin of error, so it’s good enough for government work. Indeed, PPIC reports that California ranked 12th among states in how close to perfect its count was.
California especially shined compared with the rest of the nation when it came to people of color, who historically have not been counted accurately. The census undercounted Latino and Black Californians by a bit here (3.5% and 1% respectively), but that was much better than the national undercounts of those demographic groups.
The successful count of Californians was thanks in large measure to extensive “get out the count” efforts. The state spent $187 million to educate people about the importance of participating in the census. That was more than any other state and near the top of the list in per capita spending. Officials coordinated with local community groups to engage hard-to-reach populations. And they adapted in real time to the changing census landscape at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
California’s efforts overcame threats to derail an accurate count. The pandemic was one. More problematic were Trump administration efforts to discourage participation, not least by trying to insert an illegal question about citizenship.
There were internal problems at the Census Bureau, too. Some census takers fudged data and cut corners, undermining accuracy. Most, inexplicably, weren’t fired and even received bonuses up to $1,600.
Perfection in the census is a goal. Some error always will occur because precisely enumerating 330 million people is ridiculously hard. Congress prevents the Census Bureau from using statistical tools that might improve accuracy, at least when it comes to divvying up congressional seats among the states.
California lost a seat in the House for the first time after the 2020 Census. It was a blow to the state’s political clout and to Californians’ collective ego. The knowledge that our count was so good, however, softens that a bit. We did everything we could. Some other states didn’t push their residents as hard to participate and are losing out for it. PPIC estimates that had Texas and Florida both worked as hard to get out the count, they might have gained another House seat each.
Accuracy also is critical for ensuring that California receives all the federal funding and support to which it is entitled.
California successfully encouraged residents to stand up and be counted in the census. The state would do well to remind people often over the next eight years that it is paying off, so people are primed to participate again in 2030.
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