Berkeley faces risk of census undercount

It’s not too late: People can fill out their own census forms online until at least Sept. 30.

Berkeley is falling short in responding to the census. The darker the color, the higher the response rate. The full legend appears with the original map. Image: U.S. Census Bureau

Some of Berkeley’s key census tracts have the lowest response rates in Alameda County, putting the city at risk for losing significant federal resources for schools, roads, housing and social programs.

But it’s not too late: If you lived in Berkeley for the bulk of the year, or would have done so if not for the coronavirus pandemic, you can still fill out your census form online. (That means you, UC Berkeley students!) For most people, it takes less than 10 minutes to fill out the form. Each person counted brings the city an estimated $10,000. The deadline to respond is Sept. 30.

As of this week, Berkeley was trailing Alameda County, with a 71% self-response rate compared to the county’s 74%. Some nearby cities in the area are topping the state’s list with their high self-response rates, including Piedmont at 89%, Clayton at 88%, Moraga and Saratoga at 87%, and Danville at 86%. Every city that borders Berkeley, including Oakland, has beaten their 2010 rates.

As of last week, Berkeley was one of just eight Bay Area cities with populations over 9,000 that had not met their 2010 response rates. Other cities that are lagging include San Francisco, San Pablo, San Rafael, Healdsburg, Menlo Park, Dixon and Gilroy, according to census staff.


It’s not too late to fill out your census form

“We’re not that far off but we still want people to get counted,” Matthai Chakko, city spokesman, told Berkeleyside. In 2010, Berkeley had a 72% response rate.

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, many people had hoped for record-breaking response rates in this year’s census because it’s the first time the bulk of the count has taken place online. But COVID-19 caused a slew of problems, canceling outreach events and creating particularly confusing situations for students who moved home once classes went online.

As a result, the census tracts in Berkeley that have been the hardest hit are the three that wrap around the UC Berkeley campus from the downtown area east into the Southside neighborhood. Experts say the city’s high student population always poses challenges at census time. That can be due to confusion about where students should be counted, at their family home or at school? For those who live with roommates or in other types of shared housing, it may not be clear who is supposed to fill out the form. For many students, there’s also a high level of distrust in the federal government. All those factors add up.

The question people should ask themselves, officials say, is where they would have been living for the bulk of the year in 2020 under normal conditions. Students who went home and were counted by their families should still fill out their own census form to ensure they are counted correctly. (The only exception would be for students who lived in dorms or other group living accommodations, which have been handled separately by a point person in each residence.)

According to the latest census maps, the tract bounded by Bancroft Way, Fulton Street, Dwight Way and College Avenue has the worst response rate in the city — 43% — followed by the tract just east of that, which has a response rate of 47%. The downtown Berkeley census tract — bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Way, University Avenue, Oxford and Fulton streets and Dwight — has a self-response rate of 53%.


In 2010, those three tracts each had response rates of about 60%.

“We were prepared for what would hopefully be a historic census completion rate,” said Berkeley City Councilman Rigel Robinson, who represents the Southside neighborhood. “But a pandemic is not a conducive environment for that to happen.”

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The biggest challenges for counting people in those tracts, according to census data, are posed by multi-unit buildings, renter-occupied units, non-family households, crowded units, and residents who are below 150% of the poverty level.

An estimated 26,000 people live in those census tracts, giving them some of the highest populations in the city. Berkeley’s estimated population as of this year is 122,580, according to the state Department of Finance.

Other neighborhoods of the city are doing better. Residents in many of the census tracts in North Berkeley, the southeastern part of town and multiple tracts bounded by San Pablo Avenue and Sacramento Street have self-response rates from about 75% to as high as 88%. Much of South Berkeley is closer to 70%.


But most of West Berkeley, on the other hand, from San Pablo Avenue to the bay, has historically been classified as “hard to count,” with self-response rates closer to 60% resulting from factors such as vacant housing units, non-family households, people who have moved recently, multi-unit buildings,  a high number of renters and more, according to census data.

In recent days, census takers have come to Berkeley in person in an effort to get more people to fill out their forms. When census takers can’t reach anyone, they leave a flier. If they still don’t get a response from individuals directly, census takers can seek details from landlords, neighbors and other people. So it behooves people who care about their privacy to fill out their information themselves, the census says.

This month, the census also mailed another round of paper forms to people who have not responded.

Many people have expressed concerns this year about what the federal government might do with their data. But the census says it has strict rules in place to protect personal information, as well as strict penalties for sharing it. Penalties range from steep fines to prison time.

Chaos from the coronavirus preceded Census Day

A lot of people may think the census has already ended, said Josh Green, a Bay Area spokesman for the U.S. Census Bureau. But people can still fill out their forms and should do so if they have any doubt about whether they were counted in the right place. It’s much easier for the census to cull duplicates than to correct an undercount.

Green said the coronavirus pandemic completely changed this year’s count. All sorts of events were canceled in the interest of public health. But, over the past month or so, the census has done some pop-events and car caravans that have been quite effective in spreading the word, he said.

Robinson, the Southside council member, said his office has been in close contact with UC Berkeley and Alameda County — in both the ramp-up to the census and in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak — as various stakeholders have tried to find creative ways to spread the word.


A lot of the initial planning efforts, he said, focused on getting people to fill out their forms on Census Day, April 1. To help people figure out where to fill out the form, much of the training revolved around asking people: Where do you live as of April 1?

“Suddenly that became the wrong question to ask,” Robinson said. “You could not have devised a more perfectly chaotic approach to Census Day.”

Three weeks before census day, UC Berkeley — which has an estimated population of 40,000 people — canceled in-person classes and moved courses online. As a result, many students left the area and went back home to live with their families. Other young professionals have also left in recent months as remote work became the norm.

“We had to shift everything”

In an effort to adapt, Robinson said he and others — UC Berkeley and Alameda County’s Complete Count committee — have been promoting the census widely through email lists and social media, using contests, influencers and other approaches to try to get people’s attention.

UC Berkeley was able to ensure that all of its students living in group accommodations would be counted, which was no small task. But many students live off-campus and are now elsewhere in the state, nation or world, and have therefore been hard to reach, officials say.

Esther Gulli, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Government and Community Relations office, said meetings began in spring 2019 to strategize around getting a complete count. There were plans to table on Sproul Plaza, put kiosks in the libraries and hold splashy events with entertainment and giveaways to spark student interest.

“We had to shift everything once COVID happened,” Gulli said. “All of our plans kind of changed radically once the pandemic happened and students left.”

She continued: “Students had a lot of issues they were dealing with. Filling out the census was not a high priority. So we’ve been doing a lot of makeup work since then trying to get students to know that it’s an important thing for them to do.”

“Don’t miss your chance to participate in democracy”

Gulli said she and others were hopeful, now that some Cal students have returned, that they will fill out their forms and be counted before the Sept. 30 deadline.

Amid the pandemic, a lot of the campus census work — which has been extensive — has focused on peer-to-peer outreach, getting students to call their friends to ask them to fill out the form; having teachers promote the census during Zoom class time; and helping student government leaders understand the importance of the census so they can spread the word through their networks. There was an AirPods raffle and a meme contest.

As part of the outreach work, more than 30 students made over 800 calls to the Berkeley census tracts with the lowest response rates. They reached more than 1,400 students in the area, Gulli said. And the Complete Count committee gave UC Berkeley’s Public Service Center a $20,000 grant to hire a team of census ambassadors to try to raise awareness even more.

Students also organized six roundtable events with hard-to-count populations including the Queer Trans community, the African American Student Group, non-traditional students, the Undocumented Students Program, the Latinx community, and the Disabled Students Program.

Casey Farmer, who runs the county’s Complete Count committee, said there have also been efforts to get student groups involved to try to spread the word.

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But, even with creative approaches, there has been limited success.

“It’s been challenging to see the numbers not go up,” she said. “Berkeley is at stake of losing a ton of resources that they very much deserve. Our congressional representation as a region could decrease.”

“Now is the time to do it,” Farmer added. “Don’t miss your chance to participate in democracy.”

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: emraguso.