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Why the Census Matters During a Public Health Emergency

Image via U.S. Census Bureau; 2020 Census.


Alhambra , CA

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic it is easy to lose track of other issues that will have an important impact on our lives including the presidential election and the 2020 Census. Staying safe at home may mean juggling work with homeschooling children, worrying about how safe it is to venture out to the grocery store or when to reschedule those health check-ups. For many, it may mean trying to determine how to make ends meet without a steady paycheck. These prolonged stressors compounded by the mental health toll from the overconsumption of COVID-19 information can lead us to forget one important event that only happens once every ten years – the decennial census.

Every 10 years the federal government counts the entire country’s population to determine how it will distribute over $1.5 trillion dollars in federal funds. Our small but vital role during the decennial census is to spend a few minutes to complete a census form to help draw down enough federal money to our local communities to pay for housing, transportation, education, nutrition, health care, and public health services. 

After the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid (known as Medi-Cal in California) to low-income adults, federal funding to California topped $100 billion annually. Today, Medi-Cal is the largest state program that relies on federal funding to provide health and health care services to residents, but it is not the only one. Other human service programs that rely on federal funding include Medicare, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) known as CalFresh in California, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) which provides nutrition assistance and education to low-income pregnant women and their children up to age five, community health centers, and school breakfast and lunch programs. The amount of federal funding for these and other programs are determined by the number of people living in California – so it greatly matters that everyone is counted – this includes infants, children, adults, seniors, immigrants including undocumented immigrants, visa holders, foreign students, renters, homeowners – if you live here, you count! The more accurate the count, the more equitable funding we will receive.

So, why does the Census matter during this COVID-19 crisis? With the full or partial closures of many organizations and businesses, especially those deemed non-essential, many people have lost their jobs. One University of Southern California survey showed that Los Angeles County lost 1.3 million jobs due to these sudden closures. The state Economic Development Department’s latest report showed that the County’s unemployment rate went from 4.3% in February to 6.3% in March. With the loss of jobs, individuals and families face tremendously difficult decisions in prioritizing expenses for basic needs such as shelter, food, health insurance and medicine. Getting assistance through health and social safety net programs such as CalFresh, WIC and Medi-Cal, to pay for food and health care can mean that families will have more money for rent.  

For instance, CalFresh enrollment in California has soared in the last few months. In Los Angeles County, almost 127,000 applications were received which is a 179% increase from April, 2019.The state receives about $6.7 billion dollars of federal funding to operate CalFresh; the federal government pays for 100% of CalFresh benefits. The state also has a much smaller state funded program to provide CalFresh benefits for residents who are ineligible for federal benefits. The maximum monthly amount a single person can receive from CalFresh is $194 dollars while a four-person household can receive up to $646. This support helps to reduce hunger, especially during this time when many Los Angeles County residents are unemployed. That $6.7 billion of federal funding that the State receives for CalFresh depends on, you guessed it, knowing the number of people living in California who qualify for the program.

During the 2000 Census it is estimated that California experienced an undercount, which means that as a state, we’re not receiving the full amount of federal funding support for programs. The California Complete Count report in 2012 revealed that Los Angeles County “missed out on an estimated $650 million in federal funding between 2002 and 2012.” As of May 2, California’s self response rate (57.5%) was higher than the national response rate (56.3%), however we need to do better in Los Angeles where the response rate is 53%. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront the challenges faced by our communities in Los Angeles County and the importance of supporting the programs that help us keep our children and families healthy. We can all do our part in keeping each other safe and healthy by staying home, social distancing, and responding to the census. It only takes ten (10) minutes! Here are three (3) ways you can respond to the census:

  1. Online at my2020census.gov
  2. By mail
  3. By phone: 
    • English 844-330-2020
    • Spanish 844-468-2020 
    • Chinese (Mandarin): 844-391-2020
    • Chinese (Cantonese): 844-398-2020
    • Vietnamese: 844-461-2020
    • Korean: 844-392-2020
    • Russian: 844-417-2020
    • Arabic: 844-416-2020
    • Tagalog: 844-478-2020
    • Polish: 844-479-2020
    • French: 844-494-2020
    • Haitian Creole: 844-477-2020
    • Portuguese: 844-474-2020
    • Japanese: 844-460-2020


Heng Lam Foong joined SSG/API Forward Movement as Program Director in February of this year. Prior to that she was Senior Policy Manager of the Health Access Project at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles, working on issues of health coverage, language access, oral health and immigration. She is on the adjunct faculty at Occidental College’s Public Health program where she works with students on community health engagement. She holds an undergraduate degree in Communications from the College of New Rochelle and a graduate degree in Health Care Administration from Capella University.  

The Alhambra Source encourages comment on our stories. However, we do not vet comments for accuracy or endorse links to posts in the comment section. The thoughts and opinions expressed belong solely to the author of the comment.

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