An Abrupt Change to the Census Deadline Shortened the Response Period by a Month, Increasing Fears of an Undercount in Texas

Originally distributed by The Texas Tribune

For months, as Texans have been asked to stay home to avoid the spread of the new coronavirus, Jennifer Edwards has been doing the rounds at gas stations in a trio of counties near the Texas-Louisiana border.

Volunteering as a census community organizer, the Tarleton State University professor reasoned that gas stations, like grocery stores, would continue to see foot traffic during the pandemic. Setting up a booth just outside the front doors offered her face time with essential workers to deliver an essential message — please fill out the census.

“When we’re meeting with people in front of the tractor supply or the dollar store or the gas station … the communication is focused on ‘Well when does it end, what’s the deadline?’” said Edwards, who had been sharing the pandemic-induced October deadline for counting every person living in the U.S. for the once-a-decade census.

But on Monday evening, the U.S. Census Bureau upended the timeline Edwards and hundreds of other organizers, volunteers and local officials had been working under. After previously stating the census would run through Oct. 31, the bureau announced it was cutting the count short by a month, moving up the deadline for responding to Sept. 30.

The October cutoff had offered organizers crucial overtime for the count after the coronavirus pandemic derailed a ground game for canvassing and outreach efforts that in some regions of the state had been in the works for years. Now, the earlier deadline is heightening risks that Texas will be undercounted and that some Texans, particularly those who are low-income or Hispanic, will be missed in the count as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage their communities.

The schedule change comes at a key point in the count. The bureau has started its door-to-door campaign to follow up with households that have not yet filled out the census online, by phone or by mail, but census workers won’t reach some communities in Texas, like the Rio Grande Valley, that are at the highest risk of being missed until next week.

“It seems like not only are they cutting back the time they’re giving themselves to do this nonresponse follow up, but they’re also allocating the least amount of time in the hardest-to-count places in the state,” said Lila Valencia, a senior demographer at the Texas Demographic Center.

If the census is carried out properly, Texas should post huge population gains since 2010 with more than 3.8 million new residents, according to the bureau’s latest estimates. Those estimates indicate Hispanics will account for more than half of that growth.

While other states earmarked millions of dollars to marshal outreach encouraging census response, Republican state leaders in Texas chose not to put any money toward the high-stakes, hard work of counting communities, leaving it up to a brigade of local government employees, service providers and volunteers to fill the gap. But invitations to fill out the census ended up landing in mailboxes just as the coronavirus took hold of the state and shut down outreach efforts. The bureau also temporarily shut down its field operations, delaying invitations to Texas households that were supposed to get census materials dropped off at their doors.

Months into the count, not even 3 out of every 5 households in Texas have responded to the census. The state’s 57.9% response rate puts it several points lower than the national average and at 39th place in rankings by response rates among states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

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As of Monday, just one county — Jackson County on the Gulf Coast — had received responses to date at a rate equaling the 2010 count. Less than 10% of cities had reached that marker. And response rates were lower in census tracts with larger shares of Hispanic residents or those with more people living in poverty, Valencia said.

“We’re in the middle of this pandemic where people are concerned about their health and safety, but also concerned about their future and food insecurity and things of that nature,” said Valencia. “That is a phenomena that many of us are experiencing at different levels, but some in our state are experiencing all of it. It’s a cumulative effect, and for them to even think of the census, it’s just not at their top of mind and understandably so.”

An incomplete count directly imperils the future of the state because the census flows down to Texans’ daily lives for an entire decade. It serves as the funding basis for everything from early childhood programs to highway planning and construction. Data derived from the count is used for community building, guiding where grocery stores are built and whether schools will be large enough to host students in a community. The once-a-decade count is also about power, with the population figures used to determine how many seats Texas gets in Congress and how to distribute voters into political districts.

But the 2020 census has ushered in a politicization of what was once a mostly civil assignment. The count was preceded by a drawn-out court battle as the Trump administration pushed unsuccessfully to add a question about citizenship — a decision that organizers, demographers and even former directors of the Census Bureau warned could depress responses among some people of color and immigrants fearful of providing that information to the government. With insufficient resources or time allocated for the count, some of the people at the highest risk of being missed — including Hispanic and immigrant Texans — are also those considered more likely to support Democrats.

“It’s been a point of view of ‘Let’s exclude people, we don’t want their voices heard,’” said David Herrera, a chair of the Paso del Norte Complete Count Committee, which serves the El Paso area. “Why are we moving backward when the original strategy was to ensure that everybody gets counted?”

Census officials in April proposed moving the count deadline back “to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census.” In announcing the new deadline Monday, Director Steven Dillingham said the bureau planned to hire more employees “to accelerate the completion of data collection” and avoid a delay in reporting counts for seats in Congress and the distribution of redistricting data.

“The Census Bureau’s new plan reflects our continued commitment to conduct a complete count, provide accurate apportionment data, and protect the health and safety of the public and our workforce,” Dillingham said in a statement.

The deadline switch is the latest twist in months of challenges and delays that have forced local efforts to regroup time and again during the coronavirus pandemic. And with local leaders focused on keeping their residents alive instead of counting them, grassroots work has emerged as an even more significant component of census outreach efforts.

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“What is essentially happening here is the bureau is being forced to rush the census, which feels very intentional,” Genesis Sanchez, a regional census manager for the NALEO Educational Fund, said Monday during a weekly virtual meeting with local census organizers. “The hardest-to-count folks — we know them. We are them. We’ve been working really hard to reach those people. … This is going to impact every hardest-to-count [census] tract, and so the urgency around the work that we do is now amplified.”

After scrapping in-person outreach efforts, organizers in Hidalgo County borrowed a tactic common in Mexico and headed out with megaphones and speaker systems strapped to the back of trucks or atop cars to prowl the streets of low-income communities and broadcast their message about filling out the census.

Organizers in El Paso have been visiting food distribution centers, surveying residents waiting in long lines of cars about whether they’ve filled out the census. In San Antonio — where data shows lower response in the inner city — local officials have targeted some housing areas with door hangers; other neighborhoods have seen caravans come through promoting the census.

The shared goal is to find people where they are and ensure that commissioners courts and city council meetings aren’t the only setting in which details about filling out the census are discussed, said Edwards, the professor working in East Texas.

“That information isn’t getting to a single mom who is working at a poultry processing plant. It’s not getting to the plumber who is trying to make ends meets,” Edwards said. “So primarily it’s been a lot of Facebook communication, but it’s been mostly in front of gas stations.”

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Alexa Ura is an associate editor and reporter at The Texas Tribune. As the Tribune’s demographics reporter, she covers the intersection between politics and race with an emphasis on the state’s surging Hispanic population. She also covers voting rights issues for the Tribune, where she started as a reporting fellow in 2013. She’s a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.