As The 2020 Census Draws Nearer, Permian Basin Communities Brainstorm How To Count Transient Workers

By Mitch Borden

Over the last ten years, the population of West Texas has soared as its oil fields were revived by hydraulic fracturing. And now, with the upcoming 2020 U.S. census, community leaders are trying to track down the thousands of workers who have flocked to the oil fields.

An under count of its population could mean the loss of millions of dollars in federal funding for struggling Permian Basin towns, which are facing infrastructure concerns brought on by the oil industry.

Oil field workers and their RVs began to fill the small town of Balmorhea after oil was discovered in the region. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

The West Texas oil industry is fueled by people who travel from across the state and beyond to work in the oil patch. Some of them commute, some live in RVs and others stay at man camps or hotels on a nightly basis.

But, for census workers, these populations are hard to count.

During a recent meeting in Midland, where Permian leaders met to discuss methods of tracking down and counting transient workers, Ector County Commissioner Eddy Shelton said the region’s housing shortage has made things difficult.

“You have property owners who are now trying to make use of their property by putting RVs out there and multi-family dwellings and just put people where they can,” Shelton said.

These unorthodox living arrangements, he explained, are well hidden in the backyards of houses or down dirt rounds in remote parts of the Permian.

Permian communities like his, say pop-up housing sites make it hard for them to have a fully formed plan for how they’re going to get an accurate count in the 2020 census.

“It’s a new area for us and a new task for us to do in trying to figure out how to count these,” Shelton said, explaining that he’s not sure if Ector County is prepared.

“I don’t know if we’ve got it figured out.”

Community leaders like Shelton traveled to Midland this month to meet with representatives from the Census Bureau in hopes of finding a solution to their transient worker problem. The groups talked about how to effectively target and count workers that are transient or living in worker housing.

Marissa Thornton is an analyst for the census bureau who focuses on group housing. She explained that transient workers have a lot of power to determine where they are counted in the census.

Rather than automatically getting counted as a Permian Basin resident, temporary workers can choose to be counted toward the community they consider “home.”

“We allow [transient workers] to self identify that, so really it is up to them to decide where they primarily live and that’s where they report.”

Odessa and other communities will now need to figure out a plan to find their transient worker populations and convince them to get counted towards the Permian Basin.

If they don’t, they could miss out on federal funding that could help offset the impacts of future growth in the oil industry.

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