NOEL KING, HOST:
April 1 is our census day. Ahead of the national headcount, some states are doing more preparation than others to encourage all residents to take part. California is spending close to $190 million. That's more than any other state. Starting today, it will send out workers to take a sort of mini census. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has the story.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: California officials are so worried that the 2020 census will miss enough residents in this state, they want some neighborhoods counted not once but twice - first by the U.S. Census Bureau and then by the state government.
BEVERLY WEIDMER: OK, so this is actually our block.
WANG: Beverly Weidmer is a director in the RAND Corporation Survey Research Group. The think tank has been contracted to conduct what the state is officially calling the California Neighborhoods Count. It's expected to include around 20,000 homes in areas where census participation has been low.
WEIDMER: Here you have one house number, 917.
WANG: Beverly Weidmer recently led me around a block of homes in Santa Monica where workers were trained to look for hidden housing.
WEIDMER: But you have three doors.
WANG: Oh, there's two doors right next to it.
WEIDMER: Right next to it.
WANG: This kind of detective work involves walking around neighborhoods and knocking on doors to make sure no home is overlooked for this sort of mini census.
WEIDMER: But there's clues, you know, like window air conditioning units, mailboxes. Walk through the alley, and you can look at the number of parking spaces in the back.
WANG: It's all part of California's unique focus on the 2020 census. And it's a stark contrast to other states, including Texas, that aren't spending a single tax dollar. Irena Asmundson is the chief economist at the California Department of Finance, which is overseeing the state's count.
IRENA ASMUNDSON: We have a lot of foreign-born residents. We have people in unusual living situations. So that takes a little bit of extra outreach. And we wanted to go the extra step.
WANG: That step includes going back, starting this spring, to certain neighborhoods to ask the same kind of questions the U.S. Census Bureau plans to ask, including how many people are living in a home, plus their race, sex and other demographic information. California officials plan to compare their results with the census data the Federal Government is set to release next year. In the past, some states and cities have tried to challenge the U.S. census numbers with lawsuits or requests for a recount. As for whether California is setting itself up for a lawsuit after the 2020 census, Irina Asmundson says...
ASMUNDSON: I have no comment. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
WANG: There is a lot hanging on getting an accurate count. Census numbers help determine each state's share of more than $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for Medicare, schools and roads. Plus, a recent projection found that for the first time, California is highly likely to lose a seat in Congress. But Robert Santos, the Urban Institute's vice president and chief methodologist, warns that California conducting its own count at the same time as the U.S. census may do more harm than good.
ROBERT SANTOS: There are some populations that would be suspicious, and that's going to cause problems.
WANG: Santos says sending more door knockers to people's homes may depress census participation.
SANTOS: There's always a worry that there will be confusion with people as to the nature of the person knocking on the door.
KARLA BLACKWOOD: To have someone come to your door, you don't know like, is this for real? Is this fake? Like, what's going on? You know, definitely be some inquisitive people wondering if this is legit or not.
WANG: Karla Blackwood (ph) lives near one of the neighborhoods in Los Angeles the state selected for its count. Blackwood says she would rather see the project's funding go towards directly addressing LA's homelessness problem.
BLACKWOOD: You want to believe in this beautiful nation that we live in. But, sometimes, we turn on news everyday - you're a little discouraged. And you're a little like, is anyone really looking out for me? You know, OK, I'll do this, and then what?
WANG: Michael Collins' (ph) block was selected for the California Neighborhoods Count. Collins says he hasn't ruled out filling out a census form, but...
MICHAEL COLLINS: (Laughter) Wasn't even on my radar...
COLLINS: ...Not in the least bit.
WANG: There will be online forms for both the U.S. census and California's count. But while he's watering his lawn before driving his wife to work, Collins says that option probably won't be for him.
COLLINS: I mean, you know, it sounds very convenient. But forget it. I got a few things I need to be doing online. I haven't done it yet (laughter).
WANG: Collins says whether it's the federal government or the state, if they want him counted this year, someone is going to have to knock on his door. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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