Uncounted in San Francisco

(or Growing, but it depends who’s counting: What to expect from the 2020 Census)
Is San Francisco half-empty or half-full? The next U.S. Census might not get an accurate count, and that could hurt the city. Photo: chuckr

Approximately 53,106 San Franciscans were omitted from the first-version 2010 census. The Census Bureau then relied on some fancy math and door-to-door canvassing to help correct for their errors. Yet, the bureau still thinks its final count may be about 600 people short.

What’s a difference of 600 people to a city of more than 864,000?

A lot.

Everything from public services to public servants are impacted by an undercount. Let’s tackle the financial ramifications first.

Consider that in FY2016, the state of California received $115,133,486,972 through 55 federal spending programs that distributed funds based on 2010 census data. On a per capita basis, each counted Californian brought $2,953 in federal funds. Apply that rate to uncounted San Franciscans in 2010 and the city experienced a shortage of $1,771,800 in federal funds, funds that could have offset city spending on things like food security, infrastructure investment, and affordable housing. In case you were curious, the statewide net undercount came to 95,600 people and $282,306,800 in potentially unrealized federal funds.

From a political perspective, undercounts can result in underrepresentation. Every additional counted Californian goes toward their hometown earning more representation at every level of government. These sorts of political changes occur most obviously at the congressional level. In 2010, despite the state’s population increasing by 10 percent, the number of California representatives held firm at 53. Given that the Reapportionment Act of 1929 capped the House at 435 members, only the states with the most robust population growth succeed in nabbing an additional seat. Washington, which recorded a positive population change of 14.1 percent, was the slowest-growing state to add a seat in 2010.

Another enumeration is nearly upon us. The stakes are just as high. But the barriers to an accurate count will be even higher.

Three factors may make an accurate count in San Francisco particularly difficult. First, the actual survey questions. The addition of a citizenship question, at the insistence of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, could alone result in undercounts of 5.8 percent per every household with at least one non-citizen resident. A 2014 estimate by the Pew Research Center tallied 240,000 unauthorized immigrants in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward area. A back of the napkin calculation shows that 4,640 San Franciscans could go uncounted if the question makes it onto the survey (240,000 immigrants split one-third between each city means that as many of 80,000 households would experience a 5.8 percent uncount in the respective communities).

There’s a chance this question won’t make it on the final form. The Supreme Court recently held oral argument on the constitutionality of the question. Their ruling could have substantial impact on the state of San Francisco’s finances and California’s congressional representation.

Even if the Supreme Court keeps the question off the survey, there are still two more barriers to an accurate count. The second is the digital aspect of the 2020 census. For the first time, respondents will have the chance to fulfill their legal obligation by completing the survey online. In a utopian world — one where broadband access is ubiquitous, digital literacy is universal, and hacks of federal databases are impossible — this development would mark a great leap forward in how the United States performs its decennial enumeration.

It’s true that the San Francisco Department of Technology has done great work to increase the number of public WiFi locations, but access to high-speed Internet remains unequal in the city; city officials estimate that up to 12.5 percent of homes don’t subscribe to a home Internet service. And while the Census is prepared to conduct in-person follow-up with non-respondents, the Bureau has significantly cut the number of people that will actually do this labor-intensive task.

The third cause for concern seems too obvious to state: distrust in the federal government. There’s no love lost between the current presidential administration and Californian officials. The Twitter skirmishes between our elected leaders come across as trivial but embody a very real tension. This tension may push some Californians away from any federal data collection effort.

Californians may find novel solutions to overcoming these hurdles. Doing so would prove lucrative both financially and politically. A comprehensive count would ensure California receives its appropriate share of federal funds, but even a perfect count may not save the state from losing a member of Congress. From 2010 to 2017, California’s change in population ranked 20th at 6.2 percent. This “low” growth rate puts the state at risk of ceding one of its seats to “high” growth states like Texas and Florida, each expected to gain at least two seats.

With money and influence on the line, San Franciscans need to start focusing on what they can do to produce an accurate count while adhering to its values and protecting its people.

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