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JOSE GASPAR: Kern County at risk for undercount in 2020 Census

Had the ancestors of Sandra Hernandez not participated in the U.S. Census more than 100 years ago, things may have turned out very differently for this proud Native American Bakersfield woman.

"I myself would not have been considered a tribal member," said Hernandez. "I would've had a much harder time to prove that I was a Kitanemuk descendant had my family chose not to be in that census."

The Kitanemuk Nation is are a federally recognized indigenous tribe also known as the Tejon Indian tribe, which inhabited the area around the Tehachapi mountains and the Antelope Valley. The challenge today for Native Americans and a host of others in Kern County and throughout the state is to be sure that everyone participates and gets counted in next year's census.

Easier said than done.

Kern County is at risk of an undercount, according to Edward Flores, associate professor of Sociology at UC Merced. "Communities of color are often undercounted," Flores said during a recent presentation before a group of diverse community activists and elected officials. "Children are the group most likely to be undercounted."

"Communities of color" translates to rural areas of Kern County and pockets within its cities that have a much lower than average participation rate when it comes to the census.

Why are communities of color so hard to count?

"The Census Bureau has published technical reports, and most center on the undercount among persons in complex households or multi-unit residences — situations which people of color are more likely to be associated with. This is the best scientific answer to your question," Flores told me in an email.

Complex households are those where more than one family is living in a particular house or apartment.

A check of the 2010 Census finds that Kern County has some of the hardest to count census tracts in the United States. For example, in the Lost Hills area, designated Census Tract 45, just 67.3 percent of residents filled out and mailed back their 2010 census questionnaire. The Census Bureau people had to go back and count the remaining 32.7 percent. It's anybody's guess if census enumerators communicated effectively with local residents to get an accurate count, as this area is largely Spanish-speaking and has larger households than the rest of the county and state. Also noteworthy is that the vast majority of residents in this rural community -- nearly 80 percent -- had no home internet subscription. That's of huge significance because next year, for the first time, the Census Bureau will be urging households to submit their census responses online.

Urban areas are also at risk of an undercount. Census Tract 13, in east Bakersfield, and Tract 31.14, in south Bakersfield, likewise had low participation rates -- just 65.6 percent and 68.1 percent respectively.

Kern County and the rest of California have a lot at stake here. Census data is used in many ways and is factored in at all levels of government, which distributes more than $675 billion annually in federal funds and even more in state funds. Census data helps government draw school district boundaries and design public safety strategies.

The challenge for Kern County and its respective cities is to come up with a strategy to convince people in those hard to count areas to participate in next year's census. "Getting an accurate count will depend upon providing resources to do outreach to this specific demographic," said Flores.

New challenges are around this time that weren't there before. President Trump's attempt to include a question about citizenship status is seen by many as a threat to immigrants, who therefore may shun participation altogether.

"All the scare tactics are not going to work," said Delano Mayor Joe Aguirre. "Let's stop the scare tactics."

But the scare tactics continue. Just last week, it appeared that question was moot when Trump's own Commerce Secretary announced the census forms were being printed without the citizenship question. Less than 24 hours later, Trump contradicted his own Justice and Commerce departments. "We are absolutely moving forward, as we must because of the importance this question," Trump tweeted.

It's anybody's guess what happens next.

McFarland Mayor Manuel Cantu takes another approach to the effort to secure an accurate census count. "This is a humanitarian issue," said Cantu. "Especially for the children."

Excellent point: A significant undercount would undercut funding for programs that benefit children in particular.

With the 2020 Census less than nine months away, I hope the Kern County Board of Supervisors, the Bakersfield City Council and other cities actively engage in efforts to ensure an accurate census count.

Don't just pass resolutions, take some concrete action.

Do it for the children.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.

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