The 2020 Census Is Coming Soon. How California Will Be Counted

California is teeming with people — roughly 40 million of them, more than in 21 of the smallest states combined. Why an undercount is so worrisome.

A screenshot from an explainer video on the U.S. Census website.

By Judy Lin | CalMatters


California is preparing for the next federal census, which will begin April 1. It's part of a survey the U.S. Census Bureau conducts every 10 years to figure out how many people live in the country. The accuracy of the count is important for two reasons: First, it is used to assign the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives. Second, census figures are used to direct billions of federal dollars to state and local governments -- so an undercount could cost California money.

California is especially vulnerable to an undercount because of its large immigrant population and other hard-to-reach people. In fact, a staggering 29 million Californians belong to one or more historically undercounted groups, including renters, young men, children, African Americans and Latinos.

How much could the state lose? State census officials have estimated that falling short could cost California as much as $1,000 per person a year and a seat in Congress. It's why the state is investing $187.2 million -- the most of any state -- for outreach to households that have typically been hard to count.

California households will be getting notices soon asking them to fill out the census survey. And for the first time, the government will try to collect most responses online. Here's what you need to know.


California is teeming with people -- roughly 40 million of them, more than in 21 of the smallest states combined. A century ago, people came to the Golden State mostly from the Midwest. Today, most people are coming from Asian countries such as China and the Philippines and from Mexico.

In fact, California is so diverse that it's famous for being a majority minority state, where no ethnic group claims more than 50% of the population. Latinos began to outnumber whites sometime in the middle of the last decade and are now a plurality -- not more than half, but the largest of any group.


The census affects how California is represented in Congress. Although the U.S. Senate gets two seats per state, the number of members in the House of Representatives are based solely on population. The census is used every 10 years to reallocate the 435 seats in the House.

In this year's census, California appears likely to maintain its 53 seats. However, if hard-to-count people don't turn in their questionnaires, California could miss more than 1.6 million residents, costing the state a seat in the House, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The census is also used to redraw voting districts. Accuracy is important to ensuring that communities have representatives who reflect them.


Census data is used to distribute $1.5 trillion in federal money to state and local governments. California residents benefit from dozens of federal programs, including the Community Development Block Grant Program, used for affordable housing and to fight poverty and for funding roads, school programs and lunches, children's health insurance, early childhood education and foster care.

Not surprisingly, California draws more federal funds tied to census findings than any other state. Andrew Reamer, research professor at George Washington University, estimates that California receives $172 billion in federal money based on population. That's dominated by $70 billion for Medicare, the federal health insurance program for senior citizens, and $52 billion for Medicaid, the health program for the poor known as Medi-Cal in California.

The correlation between census and health care for a Medicare or Medicaid patient may not be obvious. But according to Reamer, federal programs sometimes pay hospitals and providers different rates in rural, suburban and urban settings. That's one of several ways those programs are related to census data.

Beyond the government, census data is used by businesses to decide where to build factories, offices and stores, potentially creating jobs. Developers use the count to figure out where to build new homes or rehabilitate old neighborhoods.


The Census Bureau asks fewer than 10 basic questions of each person in a household. Responses can be submitted online, over the phone or using the paper survey.

Below is a sample copy of the 2020 Census questionnaire.


State Legislative Resources

This article was originally published by CalMatters on March 5.