A coronavirus pandemic is facing the decennial U.S. Census with new challenges that could impact the accuracy of a population count shaping Orange County communities’ funding, public services, and political representation over the course of a decade. 

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Yet partnerships between census workers, forced to test their creativity, and local community leaders in the county have formed new outreach efforts to ramp up response rates in undercounted areas.

And they appear to be working, according to those in the field.

On a sunny afternoon in July, an autism awareness leader, a community doctor, and a Buddhist monk all filed into a white Winnebago and rolled through Garden Grove and Stanton, telling people to set aside ten minutes and fill out a form that could shape the next ten years of their lives.

Trailed by a 15-car caravan filled with more monks, nuns, and local organizers in Vietnamese áo dàis, the Winnebago on July 24 hit Latino neighborhoods in those cities along with areas around Little Saigon and Koreatown — passing out gifts and information about the census in pockets where census workers say they’ve seen low response rates. 

And through a bullhorn out of the RV that afternoon, Fountain Valley doctor Mai-Phuong Nguyen in multiple languages told passing cars, dog-walkers, skaters, car mechanics and families that a novel coronavirus pandemic had bought them more time to get counted. 

The deadline for self-responses to the census questions had been extended to Halloween. 

“For every person not counted, Orange County loses $1,000-2,000 per year,” said Nguyen, among other announcements she made in English, Vietnamese and Spanish. 

A few days after the caravan — organized by the local Vietnamese Complete Count Committee — a U.S. Census Bureau employee, Fatima Mougammadou, told organizers that the areas the caravan hit had since seen “a significant change in response rates.”

“I normally track these tracts every week and the increase, if any, is usually about 0.2%.  The increase since our caravan took place until now is more than twice the usual amount and it has not been a week yet,” Mougammadou said in a memo to organizers on July 28. “You can also see the increase in both cities (Garden Grove and Stanton) overall is definitely more than usual.”

And while community leaders work to fill in any outreach gaps, the pandemic has thrown much of census employees’ own work into uncertainty. 

Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

In previous years, like the last census in 2010, workers could visit the homes of people who hadn’t returned their questionnaires, knock on their doors, and conduct an in-person count of all the people living in a unit or residence. 

Now, with social distancing guidelines and public health restrictions in place this year, census workers who were supposed to begin following up with unresponsive households in May have delayed those operations.

And for an area like Little Saigon that’s known to house multi-generational families or many people in one residence or accessory dwelling unit, questionnaire answers through virtual means and without everyone in the household properly self-responding could impact the count’s accuracy. 

While the census bureau will continue to have in-person follow-up protocols for nonresponses, bureau spokesperson Jeanette Durán Pacheco said it’s a last resort, which is why the deadline for self-responses was extended.

Workers forced to follow up in person would still have personal protective equipment, Pacheco said, though “it’s still better not to put the public at risk for any health complications.”

Trying to get as many self-responses as possible is where the outreach caravans come in.

Minh Quang. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Minh Quang, the monk who rode along in the Winnebago, said the brothers and sisters at his Garden Grove Buddhist temple, Chua Quan Am, had already responded to the census but wanted to “do our best” that afternoon “to make sure everybody counts.”

“We just want to help out with community service and do outreach and provide what little service we can provide,” he said.

Thich Nu Dieutinh, a nun at the same temple, rode in the caravan, honking car horns and passing out census bags and information to whoever would approach. She said being in the heart of Garden Grove raises important responsibilities for ensuring people of color in the city and the surrounding area get counted. 

“If we don’t raise our own voices, we won’t be properly represented,” she said.

Thich Nu Dieutinh, a Buddhist nun, at the end of the census outreach event. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

The segment of people who come to her temple consists of elders and Vietnam war refugees, she said. It’s a piece of local knowledge about her community that comes with living at the temple or being Vietnamese. 

She said the census presents new avenues for people to learn about her community and share in that insight.

“We have to raise awareness of our communities, or neighborhoods,” she said.

Garden Grove resident and speech language pathologist Julie Diep, who drove the Winnebago, said it’s about making sure both Vietnamese Americans — and for her personally, people with disabilities — get properly counted. 

She’s the founder of OC Autism, a foundation created to address autism in children and adults and improve the lives of people with disabilities.

Garden Grove resident and OC Autism founder, Julie Diep. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

“Many of us here are community leaders who want to get together and share our resources to make a bigger impact,” Diep said, as organizers, monks and nuns filed out of their cars at a corner plaza pit stop in Garden Grove. “We care so much about making sure we and our families are visible, and resources are properly allocated for community needs — a lot of those resources get missed when we aren’t counted.”

For more information about answering census questions and resources for non-English speaking households, click here and here.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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