As Principal, Superintendent and Preschool Director at Pacific Elementary in Davenport, Eric Gross is used to filling many roles. When he learned that students weren’t able to get the support they deserved because of inaccurate census data, Gross realized he had another role to fill in his community.
In the 2010 census, Davenport was the victim of an undercount. As a small, rural community, it falls squarely within the most commonly undercounted demographics. Gross explained that many families in Davenport live in remote households, some also navigate language barriers or reside in unsanctioned housing. Students also travel to Pacific Elementary from a variety of districts, complicating the school’s access to funding.
“Two thirds of our students are transfers into our district,” Gross said. “Davenport is a small town. And so while there are kids in our community, they aren’t enough to really fill a school. […] If we don’t get people to transfer to us, then we’ll be so small. We’d be in danger of closing.”
Title I funding is federal aid distributed to schools that have enrolled at least 10 students whose families live below the poverty line and whose addresses fall within the school’s designated attendance area. Gross is certain Pacific Elementary has more than 10 students living in poverty. The problem is only six have local addresses.
“There’s a technicality that missed the reality, and it’s had huge ramifications that lasted for a long time,” Gross said.
Davenport is not an isolated case. Undercounts happen every time there’s a new census count, and the consequences can be serious. 2010 census data was used for the distribution of over $675 billion in state and federal funding.
Hard to count communities miss out on proper funding and political representation. Systematic undercounts of urban centers, low income communities and communities of color mean the burden falls disproportionately on already marginalized populations.
“The fact is that the undercount is never random,” said Andrea Steiner, UC Santa Cruz community studies lecturer. “It falls on certain groups much more heavily than other groups.”
In an election year, accurate representation is a hot topic. The State of California has invested over $90 million to support organizations, counties, nonprofits and tribal leaders to ensure that Santa Cruz has a complete and accurate count in 2020, said Paulina Moreno, Project Director of the Driving Immigrants Initiative and the 2020 Census Project at the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County.
As part of the project, Moreno is working with leaders in hard to count communities to spread awareness about the importance of being counted. Their work involves fighting common misconceptions about how census data is used and assuring people that the information they share won’t be used to target them.
“We understand the consequences of having an undercount,” Moreno said. “So we’re trying to flip that message around and encourage people, reminding them that there are bigger things that we have to worry about in terms of what that means for the next 10 years and for our county.”
Until the next census, Pacific Elementary is making do with what it has. Principal Eric Gross said the school’s limited maintenance budget has caused him to learn a lot about roofing.
“I look out my window from my office sometimes and see like three or four people just fixing things, taking care of things,” Gross said. “Our neighbor across the street cuts the grass. And he doesn’t even have kids at the school. He’s just part of the community and sees needs and he takes care of it.”
Since Gross began working at Pacific Elementary, he’s witnessed over 50 children graduate without the proper support they deserve. He’s working with his community to ensure that students for the next 10 years receive proper support.
“The primary function is to educate kids,” Gross said. “It’s also to serve the families that those kids come from, and not all the needs are academic.”