Census outreach ramps up to avoid an under-count of the Austin area

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With less than a year out from the 2020 Census, a number of groups are already working in the Austin and Travis County areas to ensure the region isn’t undercounted. 

This task has additional hurdles for the 2020 census, including that it will be the first census where the internet will be the primary way through which the census is conducted. Additionally, those trying to spread the word don’t know yet whether the census will ask about citizenship. 

Tuesday the Supreme Court begins today hearing arguments on President Donald Trump’s administration’s decision to include a question on the 2020 census about citizenship. 

NBC News calls this case the high courts “highest-profile case of the term.” Two lower courts have ruled against the citizenship question in cases brought forth by 18 states, several large cities, as well as immigrant rights groups. 

Those arguing against the question fear will deter people from filling out the census. In particular, the fear is that historically undercounted groups like immigrants and minorities won’t participate.

Why does that matter?

If people don’t fill out the census, the numbers reported result in an a distribution of federal services and congressional representation that doesn’t match the population’s needs.

Census data helps to determine where more than $800 billion in federal funding is sent nationwide. Programs impacted include Medicaid, Medicare, highway planning and construction, Section 8 housing, Title 1 grants to local education agencies, the National School Lunch Program, State Children’s Health Insurance and more.

The census is required every 10 years by the U.S. Constitution. 

In Central Texas

Central Texas leaders have expressed concern about the lack of funding to contact hard-to-reach residents, saying this may result in an undercount. 

According to 2010 Census data compiled by CUNY Mapping Service/ City of University of New York Graduate Center, there are plenty of spots in the Austin area that are classified as “hard-to-count”, meaning that a significant number of people there did not mail back census questions. 

In the Austin-area, the census tracts that are hardest to count are located in South East Austin. Several spots there had return rates lower than 60 percent, with one tract between East Riverside Drive and Oltorf Street having a return rate of 42.6 percent. That tract is actually one of the hardest-to-count tracts in the country, the data CUNY compiled showed that 59 percent of the residents there are Hispanic and nearly a third had either no home internet or dial-up. 

The Census Bureau has already identified many groups that they’ve undercounted in the past including people who do not speak English fluently, people with low incomes, people experiencing homelessness, children, people who travel often, people who distrust the government,  LGBTQ people, and undocumented immigrants. 

KXAN previously reported that changes to the U.S. census in 2020 might cost Texas hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

That’s why on April 1, Austin and Travis County officials launched a Complete Count Committee to ensure people in their area are included. They explained that being undercounted by even 1 percent in 2020 could result in a significant loss of money for the county. 

Austin Mayor Steve Adler previously said that this area has been “leaving money on the table,” and for that to change, everyone in Austin and Travis County needs to be counted 

The Complete Count Committee is a volunteer committee that works to raise awareness and motivate people to participate. They aren’t the only group of people working to get the word out, Austin area residents have organized workshops and panels about the census. 

Representatives from the Census Bureau have even been in the Austin area to answer questions and educate communities on what’s to come in 2020. 

Some groups in Texas have been getting behind House Bill 255 which would support the creation of a statewide Complete Count Committee, just as Travis County has done. 

One of the groups supporting that bill is the League of Women Voters of Texas, a nonpartisan political membership organization. 

“After the census wraps up and we’ll switch gears, and depending on the outcome of the citizenship question, we’ll start ramping up our efforts a bit more to reach out,” explained Stephanie Swanson with the League of Women Voters of Texas. 

The League of Women Voters of Texas is opposed to the citizenship question, Swanson said. 

“We strongly feel that it should not be added and we believe it will cause the response rate to plummet,” she added. 

Swanson explained that Leagues of theirs in cities like Austin and Dallas are already talking to people on the ground about how the sped the word about the census. 

They have been working on messaging for some of the hard-to-count areas to encourage them to take the census, Swanson said adding the citizenship question would force them to change their messaging. 

Swanson explained that new messaging if the citizenship question is added, would need to impress upon community members that filling out the census is a requirement now of living in America. She said this strategy is what was recommended by NALEO Education Fund, a national nonpartisan nonprofit organization. 

“You always want to be viewed as a trusted source, especially with the immigrant population,” Swanson said, adding that doing so will be a particular challenge in 2022. 

“Generally speaking, the response rate is already predicted to be low,” she said, adding that bills like Texas’ SB4 which relate to immigration may add more fear for immigrant communities who might participate. 

Ann Beeson, CEO of the Center For Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based, progressive think tank, explained that Texas is particularly at risk of Texas being undercounted in the 2020 census. 

“That’s for a few different reasons,” Beeson said. “One is that Texas has a higher percentage of what we call harder-to-count communities, that includes families that move around a lot, lower-income families, communities of color, immigrant families,  and also very young children– we actually have a very high number of young kids in Texas and there’s a particular danger that those kids won’t get counted in the census.”

Beeson’s organization has been fielding questions and offering resources to groups from all around Texas who have been trying to spread information about the census. 

She’s also worried that the citizenship question will have a “chilling effect” for both undocumented immigrants and immigrants who are in the U.S. legally. 

“The purpose of the census is written into the Constitution and it is to make sure that every single person within our state borders is counted,” Beeson continued. “The concern is that by bringing this question into the census it will make families afraid to fill it out for purposes of there being some negative immigration consequence of them filling out the form.”

Until a decision is made on the question; Beeson and her organization are making sure their main message is that they want everyone in the state to be counted. 

Beeson is hopeful Texas will create its own Complete Count Committee, whether by a bill or by a decision from the governor. But she says even if the state chooses not to, her organization is already in talks about creating an informal organization to help coordinate census-related efforts across the state. 

Her organization is also helping to spread information about how the internet-based census of 2020 will work. 

“Honestly that’s another example of how the debate about the citizenship question has overshadowed a lot of very serious issues like that one,” Beeson said. “If it wasn’t for the citizenship question, we would all be spending all of our time talking about the danger of the [lack of] testing on using an online form.”

“Even the census bureau staff sometimes who work at the regional level who are trying their very best, of course, to do their job well and get the word out seem a little confused about how exactly it’s going to work,” Beeson said of the internet components of the census. 

She explained that Census Bureau representatives have told her residents will be mailed a postcard which will tell them to go online and fill out the census. If that postcard doesn’t work in reaching the person, it’s her understanding they will ultimately be given a paper form to fill out, but she is not clear on at what point people will get the option for a paper form. 

Some groups are getting involved in other ways, left-leaning nonprofit  Progress Texas, has started a petition against the citizenship question on the census, saying it would harm the state.

Tara Pohlmeyer, a communications associate with Progress Texas, explained that if the question remains, her organization and others they work with will need to do even more outreach to the immigrant communities in Texas. 

“Our stance is that we cannot erase the hardworking men and women that are really the backbone of our state’s economy just because of the political climate we’re in, immigrants are part of our community and we believe every Texan should be counted no matter what,” Pohlmeyer said.  

The citizenship question

The Department of Commerce announced in 2018 that the citizenship question would be added to the census, this was prompted by a request from the Department of Justice. 

The Commerce Department noted in a release that between 1820 and 1950, almost every 10-year census asked some version of a citizenship question. 

The DOJ believes that doing so will provide “census block level citizenship voting age population (CVAP) data that is not currently available from government surveys.” 

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said after reviewing the DOJ’s wishes, he believes any negative impacts of adding this question would be outweighed by the benefits of getting accurate details of the citizen voting age population. Ross added that to minimize the impact of the citizenship question, it will be placed last on the census.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz was one of the lawmakers who wrote letters to the Department of Commerce asking for the citizenship question to be added.  

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