Shortened census threatens to overlook border communities

FAR WEST TEXAS — Since the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the 2020 Census, Peggy O’Brien has had to get creative.

O’Brien spearheads census participation efforts in the Big Bend region with the Rio Grande Council of Governments, and she’s been spending a lot of time at food banks and working with school districts to distribute information through summer meal programs. Now, the Trump administration’s abrupt decision to cut short the U.S. Census by a month leaves O’Brien and others like her with even fewer options.

The change could have far-reaching consequences for border communities in Texas. Organizations involved in promoting census participation say historically undercounted communities will yet again be underrepresented in the national headcount, with long-ranging impacts.

Census workers and community advocates were already struggling to deliver a complete headcount in the middle of a pandemic. Now, O’Brien says, a shorter window will exacerbate existing inequities in who gets counted.

“The poorer populations have always been undercounted,” O’Brien said. “But I think it’s going to be even more this time.”

She says it’s already been an exceptionally difficult year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has hamstrung efforts to reach people at large, in-person gatherings.

That in-person contact, O’Brien says, was seen as key to overcoming historically low census response rates in the Big Bend region.

An undercount has real-world consequences since the census is used to determine political representation and guide federal funding for the next decade. And that worries Abraham Diaz, the education specialist and census coordinator with La Union Del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, a community advocacy group in the Rio Grande Valley.

“If we’re, you know, cut down from the census, we won’t be able to see ourselves represented in this magnitude that we really are,” Diaz said, noting that the census might not reflect the full population of the Rio Grande Valley. “This also cuts funding that we can use for our schools, for our hospitals, you know for our roads, for everything.”

With the exception of El Paso, census response rates in border counties range from about 20 to 50%. Presidio County has one of the lowest rates in the state, at 23.7%. Brewster County is posting only slightly better numbers, at 32.8%.

In the Rio Grande Valley, Zapata County is about even with Presidio at 22%, while Hidalgo County is seeing a substantially higher response rate of 48.9%.

Even with this variation, border counties are lagging well behind the national response rate of 63.4%. Undercounting predominantly Latino border communities could vastly under represent Texas’ Hispanic population, which has grown by an estimated 2 million people over the last decade and is expected to become the state’s largest population group by 2022.

The U.S. Census Bureau declined a request for an interview. But in a public statement, Director Steve Dillingham said the bureau “intends to meet a similar level of household responses as collected in prior censuses.”

Door-knocking is getting underway again, as census workers follow-up with households that have not yet filled out their forms. But with a month less to complete the work, Katie Martin Lightfoot, with the nonprofit Every Texan, says an undercount of the state’s population is nearly guaranteed.

“We know there is going to be an undercount in Texas,” she said. “We know that communities that have been historically marginalized or have been undercounted on previous censuses are not going to be counted.”

She says the census is most likely to undercount immigrant communities and people for whom English is not a first language, among other so-called “hard to count” groups.

Diaz, with LUPE, is working with many communities that fall into those historically overlooked categories. He says they’ve had to think outside the box — like putting on parades in which lines of cars drive through different neighborhoods spreading information about the census through megaphones and painted signs.

“People come outside,” he said. “When they hear loud music, and honking … They’re curious about what’s going on in their community.”

Diaz says LUPE is trying to organize at least one such event a week to boost participation.

In the tri-county area, O’Brien says her organization is running print advertisements, working with school districts, and continuing to show up at food banks in a final push before the Sept. 30 deadline.