Census counts determine how resources are distributed and spent in Oakland's communities. Credit: Pete Rosos

Sept. 30 is the deadline to fill out the 2020 census, a national population count that governments use to determine how much funding and other resources to funnel into local communities.

The survey takes 10 minutes to complete on average, and asks for information about where you live and who lives with you. (See all the questions you’ll be asked, and why the census collects this information.) 

During these final days before the deadline, census takers will knock on doors of households that haven’t responded yet, and spend one night trying to survey all unhoused residents in Oakland. If you don’t want to be approached, you can fill out the census online, or by phone at 844-330-2020.

How to fill out the 2020 census

There are several ways to complete the census by Sept. 30:

  • Online
  • Over the phone, at 844-330-2020. (Click the link for additional languages)
  • Mail the form you received to: U.S. Census Bureau, National Processing Center, 1201 E 10th Street, Jeffersonville, IN 47132
  • If you do none of the above, you’ll likely be approached by a census taker who will interview you

In Oakland, there’s been a 69% “self-response” rate to the census this year, slightly above the state and national average, and higher than the rate for the last census in 2010. And 81% of the households that didn’t fill out the survey on their own, but received follow-up from census takers, have now completed the survey.

“We are on track to get to full completion by the 30th,” said Josh Green, a Bay Area spokesperson with the U.S. Census Bureau. “Essential services really rely on an accurate count, so we don’t want anyone to be missed.”

Census counts determine how much money local school districts get for free lunches, Green said. Hospitals and clinics fighting COVID-19 depend on funding that’s set by the census, too. A wide variety of programs across Oakland receive and provide resources based on the official count of how many people, and what sort of people, live in the communities they serve.

Woman with a census tote bag has back to camera. Smiling man stands on his porch talking to her.
Census takers carry a badge and are required to wear masks. You can avoid a visit from one by filling out the census online or over the phone. (This is a simulated image.) Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

West Oakland and the East Oakland flatlands have the lowest census response rates in the city so far. “When the census is undercounting Black people and East Oakland people, we get less resources, and nonprofits have to fill the gaps,” said Carolyn Johnson, CEO of the Black Cultural Zone, a coalition working to “keep Black people in East Oakland.” 

Johnson noted that many people who belong to groups that have been oppressed and surveilled by the government have understandable concerns about opening their door to a government worker or providing personal information. 

“There are always concerns, historically speaking, for the Black community around how data is being used,” Johnson said.

Green, the census spokesperson, said it’s illegal for the U.S. Census Bureau or any individual census worker to share that data with anyone.

“All information is protected by law,” he said. “That means that all personal information we take in is completely confidential. If anyone breaches that there are severe penalties. Nothing is shared with any other federal agency, including law enforcement or immigration agencies.” The Census Bureau will publish population counts, but won’t publish any information that identifies your individual household, like your name.

Johnson said she can’t speak to what the bureau does or doesn’t do with census data, but said she encourages all Oaklanders to fill out the survey. “It’s one less excuse for us to not get those resources,” she said.

For undocumented residents, it can be especially nerve-wracking to provide personal information to the government, said Tiffany Lacsado, who directs community programs at The Unity Council, a social equity organization based in Fruitvale. It didn’t help that President Trump tried to put a question on the 2020 census asking people about their immigration status, she said. (That question did not end up on the survey.) 

Like the Black Cultural Zone, the Unity Council is one of the Census Bureau’s 400,000 partner organizations, which are called “trusted messengers,” helping with outreach nationally.

Parts of West and East Oakland have the lowest self-response rates to the census. Advocates say those communities will get more resources if residents are accurately counted. Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

When people are nervous about the census, “we try to get community members to think of their families” and how the survey can help, Lacsado said. “The Unity Council is a trusted messenger to the Latino community and immigrant community, some of the most vulnerable people in our society. That’s the number-one reason we’re working so hard. Because we are a place-based community organization, we do truly understand the impact that the census has in our communities. You might not be able to vote, but you can mark your existence with the census. You can get counted.” 

Both the Black Cultural Zone and the Unity Council have been handing out census literature and helping people fill out the survey at their food distribution events. The Unity Council has hired Fruitvale residents to spread the word, and the organization incorporates census information into its regular wellness calls, workforce counseling, unemployment hotline, and more. 

In addition to determining resources for local communities, the census also impacts political representation. Statewide population numbers collected every 10 years are used to establish the number of congressional seats in each state. For the first time in its history, California could lose one seat in the House of Representatives due to population decline, which would be determined by the 2020 count.

This year, the entire census process has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, in Oakland and beyond. In Fruitvale, which is disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, outreach workers can’t go out in person and have had to get creative, Lacsado said. Census offices shut down their normal operations in April and May, too. The census deadline was extended as a result of the crisis—it was originally July 31—and some people who haven’t filled out the questionnaire yet have received two hard copies at their homes, instead of the usual one, Green said. 

Meanwhile, this year the Census Bureau received more applications than ever from people hoping to become census takers. With unemployment rates spiking because of the pandemic, many people were likely drawn to the temporary job opportunity. Those workers get mandatory masks and hand sanitizer, and are trained to conduct socially distant interviews outside, Green said.

Green, who spoke to The Oaklandside during the day the sky turned orange, said census takers have adapted to even more unexpected circumstances lately, with wildfires affecting air quality.

“I don’t know how they’re finding houses in the dark,” he said.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.