In summary

The once-a-decade U.S. Census plays a critical role in ensuring that California communities receive the resources they need and the representation they deserve in government.

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By Fiona Ma, Special to CalMatters

Fiona Ma is Treasurer of California. Email her via

The promise of freedom and prosperity enticed my parents to leave their homes in China and come to the United States. Along with their hopes for a brighter future, they brought a distrust of government forged from living under a repressive regime. Initially, they did not even approve of my career as an elected government official. 

In my travels throughout California, I have learned that many foreign-born residents, including many in the Asian community, feel the same way. Distrust of government is among the leading reasons some Californians are skeptical about the 2020 U.S. Census. But don’t let fears of government – or even of COVID-19 – keep you from participating.

 Taking part in the census is the perfect “social distancing” activity since you can participate online or by phone without ever leaving your home. 

The once-a-decade U.S. Census, which began earlier this month, plays a critical role in ensuring that our communities receive the resources they need and the representation they deserve in the U.S. House of Representatives and the California Legislature. 

The census, which is included in the U.S. Constitution, has been part of American life since 1790. It is used by federal, state and local governments to allocate more than $800 billion in funding for critical services, such as health care which we will see in great demand as the state and local communities respond to COVID-19 and care for us and our neighbors.  

Census funding pays for our schools, highways, mass transit, nutrition programs, the Head Start program and for grants that support teachers and special education and housing assistance.  

Census results influence highway planning and construction, as well as grants for buses, subways and other public transit systems. Census results help determine how money is allocated to teachers and special education. It also includes programs to support rural areas, to restore wildlife, to prevent child abuse, to prepare for wildfires, and to provide housing assistance for older adults.

Census results affect planning and funding for employment and training — including programs for vocational rehabilitation state grants, and dislocated workers. In fact, there are about 132 federal programs that rely on Census data and California receives more than $80 billion dollars annually based on the census. 

A lot is at stake. Studies estimate that California could lose $1,000 a year in federal funding for every resident of our state who is not counted. 

Hard-to-count populations include renters, individuals living close to or below the poverty line, individuals living in households that are not all in the same family, communities without widespread access to broadband, children younger than 5 years old, and foreign-born residents.

Asian and Pacific Islander communities are especially vulnerable. The largest number of immigrants arriving in California between 2010 and 2017 have come from Asian countries, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

About 41 percent of Asians are either “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” that answers they give to the census could be used against them, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a higher percentage than African Americans and Latinos.

I understand such worries, but please be reassured: strong protections are in place to ensure the information you provide to the census will not be misused. 

First, there will be no question about individual citizenship status. Next, U.S. Census Bureau workers are sworn to protect the confidentiality of the information and will face stiff penalties, up to five years in jail, if they violate the law. In addition, answers cannot be used for law enforcement purposes or to determine eligibility for benefits.

Census workers will show their identification and never ask you for your social security number, financial information or for donations.

A census questionnaire asks just a few questions, including the number of people living in your home, their ages, genders and relationships to each other, and whether your home is rented.

Households across California have already started receiving invitations to respond online to the 2020 Census, and they can do so in 13 languages, including Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Japanese. Households can also answer the questions on paper or over the telephone. 

Find more information here and information targeted toward Asian Americans here

Filling out the census questionnaire is required by law, but it is also the right thing to do because it ensures our state gets the federal services we need. Your friends, neighbors, relatives and communities are counting on it.


Fiona Ma is Treasurer of California. Email her via

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