LOS ANGELES -- For more than a year, state officials and community groups in California have pushed a singular message: the importance of filling out the decennial count.
Organizations canvassed neighborhoods, and hosted rallies and information sessions where they explained how census data turns into federal dollars that trickle down to cities and states. After the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the chance to gather in person, they started phone banks and honed social media campaigns.
Those efforts, officials said, have achieved some of the best results in the country in getting the hardest-to-count communities to respond -- of the estimated 3.5 million to 4.1 million households in that category, some 2 million have replied -- although there is still work to be done to ensure a more complete count of historically underrepresented groups.
Now officials have discovered a different problem to worry about: Some affluent California neighborhoods have fallen far behind in their response rates compared with the 2010 count.
"In Los Angeles, we see a low response from Malibu to Beverly Hills and even into Studio City," Ditas Katague, director of the California Complete Count Census 2020 Office, said on a Monday call with reporters. "That's concerning and alarming to us."
Although some of those regions fell below the statewide self-response rate in 2010, the roughly 36% response rate in parts of Malibu -- and the resulting 20 percentage-point gap from the last count -- is "unprecedented," officials said. Katague said her office has seen a similar phenomenon in other upscale areas of the state, such as parts of Newport Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Several of the state's difficult-to-count tracts -- where barriers exist to full and representative inclusion -- are behind their 2010 self-response rates, such as spots in Boyle Heights and Santa Ana. But more surprising were pockets in the Bay Area's Marina, Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights and Presidio neighborhoods where there is a nearly 20-point lag in response rates, census workers said.
Officials said it isn't clear what's behind the drop in participation. But demographers have pointed to the pandemic as a major source of the problem. Some say that, as in New York City, rich Californians may have fled their homes for vacation houses. Others believe it could be that some households haven't responded because their California addresses don't represent their main residence.
"It's the Manhattan effect. It's the same thing in New York," said University of Southern California demographer Dowell Myers. "In San Francisco, people who have alternate locations shifted away from the danger, and the middle class and working class stayed put.
"The (U.S.) Census Bureau put a lot of effort into the hard-to-count areas, but they didn't plan on this other thing happening. How could they?"