By American-Statesman Editorial Board
In conference rooms across the state, community leaders are huddling around computerized maps, poring over data sets and identifying churches and neighborhood groups that could help ensure a full, accurate count of Texans in the 2020 census.
The work is critically important: The once-in-a-decade population count helps determine how up to $675 billion a year in federal money is dished out to states, including Texas. The census also awards political clout: Experts say Texas could gain up to three new seats in Congress based on its population growth.
While local officials here in Central Texas and elsewhere are gearing up for the census, Texas leaders aren’t lifting a finger. The state provided no money for efforts to ensure everyone is counted, even as California is putting $187 million toward its census outreach.
Worse, Texas is one of five states that didn’t even create a complete count committee, a team of civic leaders and other experts who work to ensure an accurate count.”
The state’s lack of engagement is even more striking when you consider one in four Texans belongs to a “hard-to-count” community — which includes people who struggle with English, those living in remote areas, children and those experiencing homelessness. It’s worth remembering the Constitution calls for a full count of everyone living in the U.S., which includes citizens and immigrants alike.
Texas only benefits from a full, accurate count. By documenting Texas’ explosive population growth over the past decade, the state would qualify for more federal funding for children’s health care, housing assistance and education programs. On the other hand, an undercount of just 1% could translate into a loss of $300 million in federal funding a year, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
Unfortunately, our state’s Republican leaders have done more to politicize and undermine the census than ensure an accurate count. When the Trump administration pushed for a citizenship question that experts predicted would lead to a significant undercount, Attorney General Ken Paxton joined a court brief supporting the ill-fated effort (the courts later blocked the question).
Bills by two Democratic lawmakers to provide state funding for outreach efforts died in committee last year. And unlike the Texas governors in place for the 2000 and 2010 counts, Gov. Greg Abbott has not issued an executive order directing a coordinated state effort on the census.
Against this abdication of duty by state leaders, however, local officials, nonprofits and other community groups are stepping up. As the Statesman’s Mary Huber has reported, Austin and Travis County have put a combined $600,000 toward outreach efforts — significantly more than the $14,000 amassed for a similar undertaking 10 years ago. Meanwhile, a coalition of nonprofits called Texas Counts is providing grants to help other communities with the count.
The work by the Austin/Travis County committee is an admirable blend of high-tech data crunching and in-person outreach. Volunteer Lizzie Shackney leads a digital team of city staffers, county workers and other helpers who have created an interactive map showing which areas have the largest hard-to-count populations. The map looks like a mosaic: pale lime tiles over easy-to-count West Austin, Oak Hill and Steiner Ranch; flecks of kelly green scattered on the somewhat challenging areas from Del Valle to Jonestown; shards of dark emerald in Dove Springs, Govalle, Colony Park and far North Austin, expected to be some of the hardest local areas to count.
Their work also draws on other data to suggest what the challenges in each area will be, whether it’s a low rate of Internet access or a high rate of renters coming and going. All of that information will help the group develop the right ground game for reaching those residents, in some cases going door to door.
John Lawler, the county-hired census program manager, emphasized to us that census data touches our lives in ways people might not realize: Funding for road projects. Decisions by supermarkets on where to open a new store, or where other companies will open and provide jobs. Information to guide the redrawing of districts for City Council or the Texas House.
The high stakes underscore the need for every Texan to respond when the census letters start going out this spring.”
Every Texan deserves to be counted. Thankfully our community leaders understand that. It’s a shame our state officials don’t.
(c)2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas
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Learn more about the importance of an accurate census count in our previous coverage: