New Census offices set to open Thursday, local efforts underway

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — U.S. Census Bureau officials are opening two Central Texas offices: Austin-Travis County Area Census Office (ACO) and Leander-Williamson County ACO on Thursday. Officials at the Williamson County office will be responsible for field operations across 20 counties surrounding Travis County, including Bastrop, Comal and Hays; as well as parts of the Hill Country.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court blocking the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to next year’s Census. Local and federal groups are working hard to build trust across communities.

“One of the scary things about this Census is that there’s been so much fear-mongering in certain communities,” John Lawler, the program manager at the Austin-Travis County Complete Count Committee said. “This is largely due to a lot of the national controversy and conversations that were going on, so we wanted to make sure folks here in the county and in the city felt comfortable.”

The Austin-Travis County Complete Count Committee is already hard at work to ensure everyone is accounted for and breaking down obstacles.

“We have to validate concerns that folks in the community have about participating in the Census,” Lawler said, adding that it’s important for people to understand what’s a stake when they are not counted.

“Most folks don’t really understand just how important the census is when it comes to different levels of funding,” Lawler said explaining how the data is used. “In every section of your life, throughout the day, Census data is powering that so if we’re not careful and we don’t take this seriously, then we’re going to have one less fresh grocery stores on the streets, we may not be getting as much funding as we need to repair those roads and some of our most vulnerable students in schools may not be getting the assistance that they need.”

Making Central Texas Count: ‘Hard-to-Count’

The committee’s program manager said they are also working to team up with local community groups to reach those who live in hard-to-count communities.

“The Complete Count committee has been divided up into several subcommittees,” Lawler said. “It’s a diverse group of folks. They’re hoping to put together a plan then we will go and activate come next year that plan will include firing up our institution partners calling either on the healthcare, educational, or even governmental scenes.”

He said this will be different from previous years of outreach, “Our hope is for each of these partners to identify the best means of communicating with their community – be it reminders in the church bulletin, neighborhood canvassing, or informational events organized by PTAs.”

Lawler said the committee is also working to identify and team up with grassroots groups and activities in hard-to-count communities.

“They don’t have to read about it in the newspaper, they don’t have to see it on TV but hopefully, they’ll be talking about it with their neighbors because we will be out there in the community,” Lawler added.

In 2010, nearly 60% of people living in the east Austin-Pleasant Valley area did not mail back their census questionnaire, requiring more costly and difficult in-person follow up to count those missing.

Overall, Travis County officials report the mail-in self-response rate for Travis County in the 2010 Census was 75.9%, and when it comes to children, historically those under the age of five have been undercounted; In 2010, 2.1% of Travis County children under 5 were undercounted.

Officials also report the Lone Star State is at risk of an even larger undercount next year. At present, 25% of Texans, that’s over 6 million people, live in hard-to-count neighborhoods. In Travis County, 32% or over 370,000 people live in hard-to-count neighborhoods.

“The good news is that across the country different national and statewide organizations have been putting in resources and research into how we can try to activate our hard-to-count communities so they feel confident in taking part in the census this next year,” he said.

Longterm Financial Impacts

Officials estimate if one percent of the state population is undercounted, the Lone Star State could lose at least $300 million in federal funding every year.

In addition, undercounting could present an even bigger problem as many cities and counties take a hard look at budgets next year ahead of the statewide 3.5% cap on property tax revenue slated to go into effect.

“Ultimately we will have to pay for that,” Lawler said. “It’s just a matter of whether that’s federal and state dollars or that’s us on the local having to catch that bill.”

Modernizing the System

The 2020 Census will offer the community three options to respond — by phone, mail and for the first time, there will be an online option.

U.S. Census Bureau officials said this, “option will make early self-response easier and more efficient for most residents in Travis and its surrounding counties.”

However, the most recent county data from 2017 reports 11.6% of Travis County’s households had either no internet access or dial-up only.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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