South Texas Census responses alarmingly low during coronavirus crisis, leaders say


This Sunday, April 5, 2020, letter shows a Census form mailed to a resident in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Leaders in South Texas are concerned that so many residents from rural and low-income border cities have yet to respond to the 2020 Census.

A national response rate chart released by the U.S. Census Bureau shows in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, several South Texas communities are well behind the curve in filling out their Census forms, which they now have until mid-August to turn in.

The Census will determine the amount of federal dollars communities will receive in the future, as well as political representation in Congress. And right now, the rural, smaller communities are way behind in filling out the questionnaires, Census data shows.

The national response rate is 45% — the Texas average response rate is 42%. However, the average response rate is just 29% in Hidalgo County — the largest county in South Texas. Cameron County, on the Gulf Coast, also has a 29% response rate. Webb County, home to Laredo, has had a 28% response rate, so far. But the rural counties of Starr and Willacy have had a response rate of 20% and 19.5%, respectively. Zapata County has only had 11% of residents fill out the questionnaire, according to the Census response rate website.

The deadline for turning in the Census has been extended to Aug. 14 as most communities shelter-in-place during this health crisis. However, the very act of sheltering in place could be the reason behind a lax response as many low-income residents don’t have Internet service or computers to fill out their forms online. And with most public transportation curtailed right now and public offices closed, many families don’t have access to computers to fill out the forms online.

It’s like a tsunami of forces all at once preventing families from complying with this necessary survey, said Nestor Lopez, an economic development analyst for Hidalgo County.

“My take on this is it is an accumulation of everything,” Lopez said Thursday in walking Border Report through the latest released figures. “In Hidalgo County, we have been working on this Census effort since 2017 — and we’ve worked with a lot of partners. But unfortunately, our strategic plans were contingent upon us having events, public rallies and boots on the ground, and that’s not an option now. We’ve had to shift strategy, now to a primarily digital push.”

But with so many residents in South Texas lacking connectivity — up to one-third of all Hidalgo County residents, Lopez said — that strategy isn’t working well.

As of this afternoon, the small Hidalgo County towns of La Villa, Elsa and Ed Couch have a response rate of just 3.6%; 4.7% and 4.9% respectively, which are some of the lowest returns in the state, and in the nation.

Compounding to the problem is many of these areas have a high rate of Post Office boxes, to which the Census Bureau says it will not mail forms, Lopez said.

Of course, residents can call the Census Bureau and dictate their information over the phone once they have supplied identifying factors.

Hidalgo County officials estimate that up to 70,000 people were not counted during the 2010 Census. As of July 1, Census estimates put the county’s current population at 868,707. But county officials say they believe there are well over 1 million residents living here.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from McAllen, told Border Report that for every 1,000 households that go uncounted, the South Texas region stands to lose $150 million in federal funds over the span of a decade. That is money used to fund education, infrastructure, veterans services and senior care.

The best scenario, Lopez said, is if the virus clears and shelter-in-place orders are lifted and government-hired block-walkers are allowed to take to neighborhoods to garner information in person. That would ensure all families are counted.

“That is really up in the air. We’re waiting to see what will happen. We can’t really predict the future due to this pandemic,” he said.

Click here to fill out an online Census form.

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