Census offices are being cut across the country — and California is losing 24

The Sacramento region hosted four census offices the last time the decennial Census was conducted. For the 2020 Census, which will be conducted a little less than a year from now, it will have just one.

The Census Bureau will continue to operate a local field office in Sacramento, but does not plan to have a physical presence in Placerville, Elk Grove or Fairfield, as it did a decade ago.

Farther south, the Fresno metro area will go from three local offices in 2010 — two in Fresno and one in Visalia — to zero in 2020. However, the Census Bureau plans to operate a field office to the north, in Merced, which did not host an office last time around.

Overall, the bureau plans to open 30 offices in the state, down from 54 in 2010. Stockton and Bakersfield will again have offices.

Nationally, the Census Bureau plans to cut the number of local offices in half compared to 2010, with workers condensed into fewer offices. The bureau also expects to hire fewer enumerators — the staff who do the follow-up work when people don’t respond to census information requests — than in 2010.

That has alarmed some state and local government officials, who warn that the bureau’s shrinking physical footprint will only heighten other logistical challenges facing the Census. A more mobile, diverse population — and one that is increasingly distrustful of government — has driven up the cost of the Census in recent decades, even as response rates have fallen.

In January, more than 50 House Democrats, including 17 Californians, signed a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross expressing concern that, “a heavy reliance on internet automation, compounded by the decision to dramatically reduce the bureau’s field presence, will disproportionately underrepresent rural, low-income and minority communities” — communities already far more likely to be missed by the federal headcount.

Rep. Jimmy Panetta of Carmel Valley wrote the letter. The city of Salinas, in his congressional district, had a local field office in 2010 but the district won’t have any offices in 2020.

At stake: billions of dollars in federal funding for states and local government, not to mention political representation. State legislature and congressional lines are drawn based off census data. California’s slowing population growth puts it at risk of losing a congressional seat in 2021.

The reduction in local offices is part of an effort by the federal government to streamline the once-a-decade tally of the nation’s population, moving more of the process online and relying less on paper forms and in-person interactions.

The Census Bureau in a December 2018 report on its preparations said field costs “comprise the most expensive parts of the 2020 Census.”

“We have made a number of major improvements including better technologies for canvassing and enumerating, new options for responding including the Internet, the phone as well as the paper,” Census Bureau Director Dr. Steven Dillingham testified at a congressional hearing on April 30.

Doug Johnson, a research fellow at Claremont McKenna College’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government, says the move to consolidate local census offices makes sense.

“In this day and age you need a physical presence a lot less than you did 10 years ago,” he said. The bureau doesn’t need “anywhere near as many people in offices typing in the forms” he explained, since much of that work is expected to be digitized.

There are concerns, however, that those digital systems may not be running smoothly in time for next year’s census. In written testimony for the April 30 hearing, Robert Goldenkoff of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that the Census Bureau has still not fully tested many of the new IT systems it is developing for 2020. GAO is a non-partisan federal agency that provides research to Congress.

As of April 2019, the agency had identified six incomplete systems. “These six systems are needed for, among other things, field assignment management and worker performance tracking during address canvassing, data collection for operations, business and support automation, and customer support during self-response,” Goldenkoff wrote.

Lawmakers from both parties are also worried that the new emphasis on digital systems will disadvantage people who don’t have internet access, particularly in rural areas.

Dillingham told Congress the Census Bureau planned to focus on mail and phone contact in those areas. But it does not plan to open assistance centers in areas with hard-to-count populations, as some members of Congress had urged. Instead, the bureau plans to team with local libraries to provide resources, among other partnerships.

That did not reassure lawmakers. “A lot of our public libraries, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, have been closed or they have limited hours, they are only open so many days of the week,” noted Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan.

Some organizations and other local groups are focused on developing a state-based outreach program to fill in the gaps in the Census Bureau’s work. The state of California is spending over $100 million on outreach, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has requested another $50 million in his recent budget proposal.

The outreach if successful will reduce the impact of any problems that emerge as the count goes forward, said John Dobard of the Advancement Project California, which is part of the Census Policy Advocacy Network.

“We want to encourage people to self-respond, we don’t want the bureau to have to do a lot of work during the non-response follow up period,” he said.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.