Why California Counts

An Interview with Cathy Cha

Cathy Cha is Senior Program Officer for Immigrant Rights and Integration with the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. She recently explained the Fund’s leadership role in California Counts, a statewide effort aimed at ensuring a fair and accurate census count in 2010.

Why is it important for everyone to be counted in the census?

Census Day is the most democratic day on the calendar in this country. It’s a day when every person in this country is counted. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, what color your skin is, whether you have papers or not, or even whether or not you have a home. Everyone gets counted.

Getting an accurate count of all Californians is important for two reasons. First, it determines how much federal funding we get for schools, health and human services, roads and transportation, and more. And the second reason is because the numbers from the census will determine political representation, including how many representatives we will have in Washington.

This is also the first time the census is counting gay couples, so we’re interested in making sure that count is accurate—because the larger the count, the harder it will be for policymakers to ignore the interests of their gay constituents.

Why are the Haas, Jr. Fund and its partners involved in this work?

In the past, the census hasn’t done a very good job counting hard-to-reach populations. And for good reason—it's not easy reaching all the diverse groups in a state as large as California. Especially in this economy, the likelihood of missing large numbers of people is very high.

Because of the recession, many families are doubling up in homes—and if one person in the house gets a census form, they may not know to fill it out for everyone else. We also have a lot of people in the state who don't have their citizenship papers, and a lot of people who've become homeless because of the foreclosure crisis.

And so we’ve formed a strategic partnership between foundations, the public sector and nonprofit organizations throughout the state to help make sure that every person in California is counted in the 2010 census. Some of the partners work with Latino populations, some focus on migrant workers, the homeless, or people with limited English. And everyone plays to their strengths so we can cover the most territory possible, and so we can reach out to every Californian who might not otherwise be counted. Together, about 20 foundations have raised $9 million to fund over 125 community-based nonprofits around the state to do census outreach.

What strategies are the partners using to ensure a successful census count?

One strategy is to use trusted messengers to spread the word about the importance of being counted. So if you’re an attorney who provides immigration services to immigrants, we’re talking to you about helping your clients understand this. And we’re talking to community organizing groups, health clinics, social workers, employees of homeless shelters—anywhere that gives us access to some of these historically undercounted groups.

The other thing that’s important is that we are pursuing these strategies on a statewide basis. California Counts! is ensuring a good count in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and also in parts of the state that might otherwise be overlooked.

How will you judge whether you’ve succeeded in this work?

We’ll judge our success in two ways. First, of course, we’ll look at the count results for California and at every census tract to see what the numbers are. And we’ll compare those to the numbers from the 2000 census and to estimates we had going into this about the kinds of numbers we expected to see.

Second, the California Endowment will be leading an evaluation to see if this work resulted in new partnerships and an increased ability to get all these different groups together to address other issues, like the state budget or immigration policies. We have a critical mass of very committed and very organized leaders working on this, and it would be a shame if they had to wait another ten years to have another chance to come together and make a difference.