California is preparing for the next federal census, which will begin April 1. It’s part of a survey the U.S. Census Bureau conducts every 10 years to figure out how many people live in the country. The accuracy of the count is important for two reasons: First, it is used to assign the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives. Second, census figures are used to direct billions of federal dollars to state and local governments — so an undercount could cost California money.

California is especially vulnerable to an undercount because of its large immigrant population and other hard-to-reach people. In fact, a staggering 29 million Californians belong to one or more historically undercounted groups, including renters, young men, children, African Americans and Latinos.

How much could the state lose? State census officials have estimated that falling short could cost California as much as $1,000 per person a year and a seat in Congress. It’s why the state is investing $187.2 million — the most of any state — for outreach to households that have typically been hard to count. 

California households will be getting notices soon asking them to fill out the census survey. And for the first time, the government will try to collect most responses online. Here’s what you need to know.

How has California changed?

California is teeming with people — roughly 40 million of them, more than in 21 of the smallest states combined. A century ago, people came to the Golden State mostly from the Midwest. Today, most people are coming from Asian countries such as China and the Philippines and from Mexico.

In fact, California is so diverse that it’s famous for being a majority minority state, where no ethnic group claims more than 50% of the population. Latinos began to outnumber whites sometime in the middle of the last decade and are now a plurality — not more than half, but the largest of any group. 

Why does it matter? (Part 1)

The census affects how California is represented in Congress. Although the U.S. Senate gets two seats per state, the number of members in the House of Representatives are based solely on population. The census is used every 10 years to reallocate the 435 seats in the House. 

In this year’s census, California appears likely to maintain its 53 seats. However, if hard-to-count people don’t turn in their questionnaires, California could miss more than 1.6 million residents, costing the state a seat in the House, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The census is also used to redraw voting districts. Accuracy is important to ensuring that communities have representatives who reflect them.

Why does it matter? (Part 2)

Census data is used to distribute $1.5 trillion in federal money to state and local governments. California residents benefit from dozens of federal programs, including the Community Development Block Grant Program, used for affordable housing and to fight poverty and for funding roads, school programs and lunches, children’s health insurance, early childhood education and foster care. 

Not surprisingly, California draws more federal funds tied to census findings than any other state. Andrew Reamer, research professor at George Washington University, estimates that California receives $172 billion in federal money based on population. That’s dominated by $70 billion for Medicare, the federal health insurance program for senior citizens, and $52 billion for Medicaid, the health program for the poor known as Medi-Cal in California. 

The correlation between census and health care for a Medicare or Medicaid patient may not be obvious. But according to Reamer, federal programs sometimes pay hospitals and providers different rates in rural, suburban and urban settings. That’s one of several ways those programs are related to census data.  

Beyond the government, census data is used by businesses to decide where to build factories, offices and stores, potentially creating jobs. Developers use the count to figure out where to build new homes or rehabilitate old neighborhoods.

Who is hard to count?

In 2017, about 72% of all Californians belonged to one or more groups that have been historically undercounted in the census, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. That’s 29 million people, many of them renters, young men, children, African Americans and Latinos, who have a lower response rate. People without a home or living in nonstandard housing, such as garages and trailers, are also hard to reach. In addition, many of these people may lack a reliable internet connection.

Moreover, immigrants worried about revealing their legal status may be reluctant to fill out the questionnaire.

To get the most accurate count, California is spending $187.2 million in marketing campaigns on TV, radio and billboards, as well as coordinating with community organizations to get households to complete and turn in their questionnaires.

Worried about the census?

Should I be worried about my immigration status? 

No. The 2020 census will not include a question about citizenship status.

The census is ideally supposed to count every person residing in the United States — citizens, noncitizen legal residents and unauthorized residents. The Trump administration had sought to include this question, but was blocked from doing so by the U.S. Supreme Court: Is this person a citizen of the United States? 

Chief Justice John Roberts didn’t have a problem with the question itself but rejected the administration’s “contrived” reason for the change.

A citizenship question won’t be included on 2020 census forms. But other Census Bureau surveys do ask about a person’s U.S. citizenship status.

The issue isn’t new. Before 1950, the census survey given to all respondents asked foreign-born residents if they were naturalized citizens. From 1960 to 2000, a citizenship question appeared in a separate Census Bureau survey that went to a limited number of households every 10 years. In 2010, that survey was replaced with a new format called the American Community Survey, which asks a rotating sampling of residents a citizenship question on an annual basis.

What about households with some undocumented residents? 

The Census Bureau is required by law to keep personal information confidential. Answers cannot be used for law-enforcement purposes or to determine eligibility for government benefits. And personal information can’t be used for the purposes of immigration enforcement.

What if I don’t speak English?

The state is encouraging participation by providing materials for the top 12 languages spoken in California apart from English: Spanish, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Vietnamese, Tagalog, Korean, Armenian, Farsi, Arabic, Russian, Japanese, Punjabi and Khmer.

When does the census start and end?

For the first time, the government will try to collect most responses online, with the remainder by mail, by phone or, as needed, in person. Despite concerns about cybersecurity, it’s all part of an effort to cut costs and offer convenience.

Census workers will walk through neighborhoods to encourage people to complete their surveys. Image via flickr.

Starting March 12, households will receive a letter in the mail inviting them to fill out their questionnaires online at The site will be open to the public through July 31.

Reminder notices will be sent out between late March and early April. Soon after, paper questionnaires will be sent to households that haven’t completed the survey online.

Field workers will also be dispatched to get people to turn in completed surveys. These workers will show valid Census Bureau identification and won’t ever ask for payment or for your Social Security number.

The count will finish in July. The Census Bureau will deliver apportionment counts for the House of Representatives in December. By March 2021, the bureau will send redistricting counts to the state for the redrawing of legislative districts.

What questions will be asked?

The Census Bureau asks fewer than 10 basic questions of each person in a household. Responses can be submitted online, over the phone or using the paper survey. 

Below is a sample copy of the 2020 Census questionnaire.

2020 Informational Questionnaire (PDF)
2020 Informational Questionnaire (Text)

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Judy serves as hub editor of the California Divide project, a five-newsroom collaboration covering economic inequality. Prior to editing, she reported on state finance, workforce and economic issues. Her...