By Carlos Morales
Concerns West Texans may be undercounted during the 2020 Census are mounting as the coronavirus pandemic complicates the work of surveyors.
The Census Bureau and local advocates already considered the Big Bend home to some of the hardest to count populations in the country: people living in rural communities, low-income residents, communities of color and undocumented immigrants. With the count now underway, Census takers are having to navigate a new set of challenges as they try to reach every person living in the area.
In an effort to get ahead, boots-on-the-ground outreach began to ramp up in the Big Bend area back in early March.
For months, Peggy O’Brien was on the ground talking to residents and reminding them about the upcoming census. She had kept track of events like dog races, fish fries, block parties, school graduations, church services — anywhere she could meet face-to-face with Big Bend residents to encourage them to fill out the Census.
“It was sort of like taking the temperature a little bit” and gauging residents’ willingness to participate in the count, said O’Brien, who’s spearheading local Census efforts with the Rio Grande Council of Governments, an association of municipalities across seven West Texas counties.
It was a good start, she said. But then the pandemic happened.
By March 18, the Census Bureau had officially postponed their field operations. During the national count, Big Bend census workers were planning to drop off questionnaires in person since the bureau doesn’t mail directly to post office boxes. In rural corners of the state, where most mail is delivered to a P.O. Box, this was a major blow.
Now, O’brien’s had to shift to other tactics like leaving informational pamphlets at food pantries and lunch pickups at schools to remind residents the Census is still ongoing. Other outreach efforts are now largely limited to social media and newspaper ads.
“We were really starting to get some traction. And then right when we were going to hit go, we were told to hit stop,” said O’Brien.
But even before the pandemic, ensuring an accurate count in the Big Bend region was always a challenge.
“Where we’re at today and what the deadline is, it’s set to fail,” said Presidio City Manager Jose Portillo.
Portillo, who’s also on the city’s complete count committee, is concerned about the lasting impacts an undercount would mean for his community. “It’s worrisome,” he said.
As of this week, just over half the households in Texas have responded to the Census, largely in the state’s more urban and suburban areas. The response rate in Marfa is 11.6% of all households, while in Presidio that rate is much lower at 3.6%.
The 2020 Census will determine how much federal dollars flow into the Big Bend and will play a big role in shaping the economic, social and political future of the region. The final count determines funding for assistance programs, political representation and influences where roads are built or fixed.
“It’s so important to have that accurate count so our communities have the money they need to be able to thrive for the next decade,” said Katie Martin Lightfoot with the Center for Public Policy Priorities. “If we have an undercount in Texas by just 1%, we will lose $300 million per year for the next 10 years.”
During the last few national counts, officials throughout the tri-county area have said residents were missed and went uncounted. Officials offered anecdotal evidence and looked at utility hook-ups, which suggested larger populations than what the Census Bureau ended up recording.
This year, Martin Lightfoot said what’s made things even more challenging is state leadership didn’t put money toward the count, placing the burden on local governments and communities. Meanwhile, states like California shelled out nearly $200 million for their Census efforts.
While census workers in the tri-county area haven’t been able to get surveys out to residents, O’Brien said she’s “cautiously optimistic that people will respond on their own” as soon as workers can start delivering questionnaires to front doors, which could happen soon.
This month the Census Bureau is planning a “phased restart” of their field operations in 13 states. While Texas isn’t on that initial list, officials with the Census Bureau say they’re monitoring the coronavirus pandemic in the state and hoping field operations could start again in a few weeks.
“In some of the parts of Texas I know, it’s very close to being safe enough for our staff to be able to go out and continue with that questionnaire delivery process,” said Dennis Johnson, deputy regional director for the Census Bureau, whose district includes Texas.
While the pandemic upended the bureau’s efforts, Johnson said people in the state have been responding to the survey online. But for rural communities like the Big Bend region, he said it’s still important to have workers dropping off questionnaires at homes.
“We need people on the ground to actually spot where that location is, so that we know exactly where it fits into the bigger picture,” said Johnson.
In order to ensure an accurate count, census workers in areas like the Big Bend region, will visit homes to drop off a survey since the Census response needs to be associated with the physical location— and not post office boxes.
When those door-to-door field operations begin again, the bureau has said Census workers will go through safety training, practice social distancing protocols and receive protective equipment before hand-delivering census forms.
Initially, the decennial count was to be completed by July 31. But because of the pandemic, the Census Bureau moved the deadline to respond to Oct. 31.
While it’s unclear exactly when Peggy O’Brien will be back out in the field — tablet in hand, encouraging people to sign up for the Census — she’s figuring out ways to keep up awareness of the national count.
“There’s a lot of legwork still to be done,” said O’Brien. “We just want to keep this on everybody’s radar right now.”