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Fiercely committed to a complete count of Texas residents for Census 2020, advocates across ethnic groups are re-thinking tactics and strategies of how to increase self-response rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We all know that we are in a really difficult time right now with COVID-19,” acknowledged Katie Martin Lightfoot, community engagement coordinator for the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “Many of the resources that working folks and families across our state are relying on now to survive are determined by census data.”
In a virtual forum hosted by Ethnic Media Services for media and census advocates, speakers underscored the struggle between bringing the urgency of the census message home to people while still keeping a distance. “Our main challenge in getting everyone to fill out the census is that we’re missing that human touch,” conceded Paulina Lopez, a Census Bureau senior partnership specialist responsible for the state’s 35 southernmost, heavily Latino counties. “We’re not giving up,” she said emphatically.
“No more door knocking?” questioned Nestor Lopez, an economic development analyst at the Hidalgo County Judge’s office. As an alternative, “we installed loudspeakers on our cars,” he said. Lopez helps oversee census outreach in the largely rural communities along the border, a region where cell phones have limited reception and Internet access ranges from unreliable to non-existent. Filling out the census on-line is rarely an option, Lopez noted.
Tenacity and ingenuity may still triumph over current circumstances, if these and other strategies listed by speakers prevail. If they do not, the alternative is grim. “If a baby is born and is not counted,” said Dr. Sylvia Acosta, CEO of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region, “we will not have resources for that baby until they’re 10 and how are communities going to survive that?”
Paulina Lopez, also a member of Acosta’s YWCA board, described one successful outreach initiative. With a $1,000 reward in the balance, a contest was launched to see which of two competing schools could turn in the most completed census forms from their respective school’s parents. “With this initiative we were able to complete 130 questionnaires,” Lopez said, stressing that the goal is not just outreach but measurable participation and results.
Ray Shackelford, National President of the Young Professionals of the National Urban League which targets hard-to-count urban neighborhoods, described efforts to harness the mass appeal of Instagram-live events. Hosted by d-jays with countrywide followings, this digital platform has propelled successful National Urban League registration campaigns and is a template the League plans to use to educate younger African Americans about the census. Shackelford said the hope is that the younger cohort will influence peers and elders.
The Texan African American community continues to expand with the addition of African and Caribbean immigrants and intermarriages. If there is any advantage within this universe of prospective census respondents, it is general familiarity with English, an asset not shared by the Asian American community.
“There’s about 1.7 million Asian Americans living here in Texas,” said Nabila Mansoor, census director of the Empowering Communities Initiative, “and we have been under counted for decades.” Not only do Asian Americans live in Hard to Count census tracts, she reported, but the language barrier compounds the difficulty of garnering high census response rates. Her messaging emphasizes the link between accurate census data and funding for health care. “Some 163,000 Asian Americans have no access to health care in Texas,” she noted.
Even before the pandemic, the odds were high against an accurate count. Dr. Lila Valencia, Senior Demographer for the Texas Demographic Center in Houston, noted that Texas is second only to Alaska in size and second only to California in total population
As of late May, the Texas self-response rate was just under the national average of 55 percent, but it is the hard to count tracts, urban as well as rural, that keep advocates up at night. In the 2010 census, a quarter of a million Texas residents were uncounted. A mere one percent undercount in 2020 could cause Texas to lose $300 million per year until 2030.
Though non-Hispanic whites are still the state’s largest ethnic group, Valencia noted that close to 90 percent of the new population added since 2010 has come from non-White ethnic groups – with Latinx presence accounting for over half of that number, and Asian Americans representing the fastest growing group.
Nina Perales, Vice President of Litigation for MALDEF based in San Antonio, has worked to reform the state’s redistricting process for two decades. Even if an accurate count is achieved, she warns, there’s the danger that it won’t translate into political representation.
Every 10 years, each state’s congressional and other districts are redrawn by its respective state legislature after receiving the newly collected census information. “In every cycle of redistricting, Texas has been found by the courts or the Justice Department to have discriminated against Latino voters,” Perales explained.
Even under the best of circumstances, the timeline for the Texas legislature to handle redistricting is brief. This year because of the pandemic, census data will not be released until April 2021, affording the Texas legislature only a month to redraw lines unless it convenes a special session for that purpose.
For Perales, a bigger concern is the Trump administration’s effort to collect citizenship data through the census and ultimately have the citizenship population be the sole demographic criteria used to draw up congressional districts. Citizenship only representation is already a stated goal of the Texas Republican Party platform. Should that occur, simply being a resident of Texas, rather than a citizen, would have no representational weight.
Panelists concurred that loss of political representation would not bode well. They view getting an accurate count as tantamount to laying the groundwork for a better quality of life.
Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of LUPE (La Union del Pueblo Entero) for over 20 years, described what failure to raise the response rate would mean for the colonias (unincorporated communities) of the Rio Grande: “Our schools are going to continue to be underfunded, our roads will continue to deteriorate, public funding for health care will dry up. An undercount will take congressional and state legislative seats from or area.”
“We live the consequences of an undercount,” Valdez-Cox said, summarizing the sentiment of conference speakers. “The census staff suspended its work because of concerns about the virus. We didn’t close down. We just started working from our homes.”