AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Secretary of State plans to use up to $15 million in federal coronavirus relief funds on an advertising campaign to drive participation in the U.S. Census, with the deadline to be counted less than a month away, and the state’s largest cities reporting lower self-response rates compared to the 2010 Census.
The campaign, first reported by the Texas Tribune, will be paid for using part of the funds allotted to Texas under the CARES Act, according to a spokesperson for the secretary of state. It’s still unclear why federal funds meant for coronavirus relief are being used to support the Census, which state leaders have, until this point, largely ignored.
“I do wish that money would have been available earlier,” said John Lawler, the census program manager for Travis County. “It’s something that has been out of our control locally, but any help is good help.”
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the self-response rate in Austin is 63%, down from 67% in the 2010 Census. Lower self-response rates were also reported in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso.
An under-count in the Census could end up costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the next decade, money that supports public infrastructure, schools and hospitals.
The Texas Legislature defeated a bill in 2019 that would have established a statewide census committee. On Aug. 18, 53 members of the Texas House of Representatives sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott urging him to establish a Complete Count Committee, though he never did.
Rep. John Bucy (D-Austin) said he worries an under-count could also cost Texas important seats in the U.S. Congress.
“We’ve seen the Census in the last three decades, really, be a bipartisan thing led by different state leaders and governors,” Bucy told KXAN. “Unfortunately, the support wasn’t there this time.”
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The Travis County Complete Committee is targeting “hard-to-count” neighborhoods in the weeks ahead of the deadline. Nearly 12% of households in Travis County either have limited access to internet or none at all, according to data provided by the committee from 2017.
Constable George Morales, who represents part of southeast Travis County, said he’s working to make sure money available to his community isn’t left on the table.
“In the Precinct 4 community, a lot of times we were left out,” Morales said. “Not this time.”