Census takers are going door-to-door in West Texas. Why respond?

FAR WEST TEXAS — Efforts to deliver 26,775 census invitations and paper questionnaires to West Texas households began again this Monday after a lengthy hiatus. Four days into their initial efforts, on March 15 all operations sputtered to a halt when the coronavirus hit the United States. In the time since, the Census Bureau has worked with federal, state and local health officials to develop a safe plan to count U.S. residents.

Now, census workers are hitting the streets, matching names to home addresses so that a more accurate count can be taken. UPS and FedEx sometimes struggle to find rural addresses, and the United States Postal Service does not even attempt delivery to homes here. That’s one reason why the Census Bureau depends on its own employees to travel through the area, finding the homes themselves and logging them for internal use.

The information collected isn’t shared across the federal government; in fact, your name is only useful to help them know you were not counted twice. Instead, the data is viewed on a larger scale by the Census Bureau, used to determine the distribution of funds for the public and private sector and the allocation of political power.

And that data isn’t just used for 2020, it is relied upon for the next 10 years. Missing out on being counted actually means a decade of funding and political power that doesn’t include the whole community.

Dennis Johnson is the deputy regional director for the Denver and Dallas region, a 12-state region from here to the Canadian border and across to the Rocky Mountains. He explained that an accurate count impacts representation at the national level. “The number of representatives set for the state of Texas depends on the population in Texas compared to other places.” And given Texas’ explosive population growth over the past 10 years, “We fully expect there to be a growth in congressional seats.”

It works at the state level as well, with the Texas legislative districts being adjusted based on the census too. It also impacts how many votes each state gets in the Electoral College. And then there’s the money.

“That’s a huge part of it,” Johnson said. “There are hundreds of billions of federal dollars distributed each year to states and local communities based on census numbers. It applies to education, schools, teachers, those resources, public safety, firemen, policemen, and it applies to medical care, healthcare facilities for aging folks, and that’s truly very critical at this point.”

As of June 4, Texas ranks 41st in response rate at only 55.4% of households having filled out the census already. The state chose not to allocate any funding to “get out the count” and improve response rates. Locally, Presidio County ranks 3,127th out of all 3,215 counties in the United States, with a 7.3% response rate. Only 4% of City of Presidio residents have responded and 13.6% in Marfa have responded.

Johnson expects those numbers to climb much higher, saying that they’re likely so low because no one has received paper censuses in the area. While some have already responded using the census website or by phone, many cannot, or are waiting to mail in the hand-delivered paper version.

In-person, on-the-ground efforts like these are reserved for areas where the majority of households do not have mail delivered to their address. In places like Presidio and Marfa, the bureau has to hand deliver invitations.

The field staff were given special training on social distancing and will wear personal protective equipment for the safety of themselves and residents. “This operation is contactless and follows the most current federal health and safety guidelines,” a Bureau statement read. They will also deliver 5.1 million paper questionnaires to the front doors of Texans.

The El Paso Area Census Office serves El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Loving, Reeves, Ward, Winkler, Ector, Crane, Midland, Upton, Pecos, Jeff Davis, Presidio, Brewster and Terrell counties.

The current operation is scheduled for four weeks, but Johnson expects it to finish even sooner.

The department is still recruiting and accepting applications on their website. Over the summer they’ll select employees for their final operation to visit households that have not yet responded, match up responses where the exact location isn’t clear and clean up everything they’ve already received.

Anyone with an internet connection or a phone can self-respond to the 2020 Census by visiting www.my2020census.gov or calling 844-330-2020 for English and 844-468-2020 for Spanish.