As it counts Californians, the U.S. Census Bureau is counting on California counties and cities.

To an unprecedented degree, local municipalities are working with the decennial census effort and pursuing their own outreach efforts to convince residents to stand up and be counted.

“This year, compared to 10 years ago, we have better coordination,” said Jerry Ramirez, principal analyst in the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office. “With GIS (Geographic Information Systems), we’re able to identify more addresses and working closely with the census bureau to make sure new addresses receive questionnaires.”

The census bureau is sending out basic 10-question questionnaires in mid-March, urging residents to fill them out and mail them back by April 1, Census Day.

This decade’s effort includes more census “partnership specialists” working with community organizations and municipal staff to encourage participation.

The census is the ultimate number-crunching exercise. And there’s some fun, too. Los Angeles County’s census Web site includes videos from past outreach efforts, including video appearances by legendary actors Kirk Douglas and Mickey Mouse. See more information here.

The census bureau offers “quick facts” for each state. For instance, California’s estimated population in 2008 was 36.76 million, an increase of 8.5 percent from 2000. The state’s population of “Hispanic or Latino origin” was 36.6 percent, compared to 15.4 percent for the nation as a whole. There’s plenty more — See here.

Dozens of California jurisdictions, particularly those with census tracts identified as “hard to count,” are scheduling events in late March to promote a good response by residents.

One particular outreach is to homeless people. Cities and counties are coordinating with census staffers to make materials and people available to answer questions on this schedule: homeless shelters on March 29, soup kitchens on March 30 and homeless encampments on March 31.

“We’re meeting with some soup kitchen staff today to propose ideas and incentives to attract more than the usual number of people who come there to come on the 30th,” said Vilcia Rodriguez, senior executive analyst in the office of San Jose City Manager Debra Figone. “Our housing department and police department are putting together lists where they (census workers) can find homeless people.”

“We’re working together to make sure during this census there is a better homeless count,” said Ramirez. Los Angeles is believed to have the largest homeless population of any U.S. county. By census bureau measurements, it has the nation’s largest “hard-to-count” population.

The census bureau calculates “hard-to-count” areas with an analysis of more than a dozen factors, including housing occupancy, income levels, mobility, education and percentage of “linguistically isolated households.”

How important is the census to county government? Chief Executive Officer William T. Fujioka estimates in a Jan. 26 memo that nearly a quarter of Los Angeles County’s annual revenue comes from the federal government, distributed with formulas based on census counts of population, income, school population and many other breakdowns.

The count is important in the political world. Witness widespread speculation that California might lose a seat in Congress because of relative population distribution — once the census tallies are complete.

“We can’t afford to lose more of our federal dollars and we can’t afford to lose a congressional seat,” said Ditas Katague, director of Census 2010 in the governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

Katague noted that the census bureau has increased media buys 35 percent compared to a decade ago. She has urged census officials to target those buys more narrowly, with commercial content that speaks directly to issues (and in languages spoken) in California’s localities. “It needs to resonate with them on a local level,” Katague said.
The trust issue is paramount in ethnic communities, she said, where residents are skeptical of U.S. Census assurances, in all its materials, of confidentiality and that information is not shared with immigration officials.

The state, in flush economic times in 2000, allocated $24.7 million for census outreach. In this round, Katague said, that number is under $2 million. That includes a $1 million fund that the state is distributing to 13 “hard-to-count” counties, which encompass more than 80 percent of California’s hard-to-count population, she said. Those 13 counties are now submitting and revising plans for using those grants.

Among outreach ideas contained in those plans:

  • Community- and faith-based organizations would have staff sworn in as census officials to administer questionnaires in Contra Costa County neighborhoods.
  • Community workers would, for instance, help explain census questions to residents for whom English is a second language. “When someone who shares your common values says this is important, it makes a difference,” said Kristine Solseng, a senior planner in the county’s Department of Conservation and Development, who noted that this item in the county’s plan still needed formal approval.
  • Solseng in her regular job often uses census data to draft computer maps to inform county policy decisions — for instance, a proposal for a tribal casino employs data to examine rates of gambling problems in local census tracts.
  • In San Jose, with an eye toward the housing crisis, “the housing department staff, when they’re conducting foreclosure workshops, is taking census materials to their workshops for people that are between addresses,” said Rodriguez of the city manager’s office.
  • In Los Angeles, people taking advantage of transitional jobs at nonprofit organizations would have, as part of their duties, census outreach responsibilities. This includes people who come from hard-to-count areas, noted Martin Zimmerman, assistant chief executive for Los Angeles County.
  • This idea, which coordinates with the Transitional Subsidized Employment program operated by the county’s Department of Public Social Services, “is innovative in the way that it leverages federal stimulus money,” said Katague, the state census director.

Lance Howland can be reached at