Some Fear Undercount As Texas Decides Not To Spend Money On 2020 Census

Jul 16, 2019
Originally published on July 16, 2019 10:42 am

You've got to spend money to make money. But that's not the way Texas, and a handful of other states, are looking at the 2020 census. Officials in Texas have decided not to spend any money or make statewide plans for the census, despite the fact that the state experienced massive population growth in the past decade.

With federal dollars at risk, the state's major cities, business leaders and even nonprofits say they are being forced to step in instead.

Across the country, states are spending millions on making sure they get a better head count of their residents. For example, California officials announced they are investing as much as $154 million in the 2020 census.

But not all states are making investments, or even coming up with statewide plans to improve the count.

This year, Texas lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have created a statewide effort aimed at making sure all Texans are counted. Measures that would have ensured millions of dollars in funding for the census in Texas also failed.

"California is eating our lunch on the census," says Ann Beeson, the CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. "And what that's going to mean is more representation and more dollars for California than Texas."

Beeson said this is particularly concerning because the state's population has continued to explode. In fact, many of the country's fastest-growing cities are in the Lone Star State.

By some estimates, Texas is set to gain three to four congressional seats after the census. But that's only if there's an accurate count, Beeson says.

"Texas is already at a high risk of an undercount," she says. "That is because we have a higher percentage of what are considered hard-to-count populations."

That includes low-income populations, immigrant families and young children, Beeson says.

"We have a particularly high risk of an undercount of young children because we have so many," she says.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities estimates that a mere 1% undercount could cost Texas $300 million in federal funding a year.

That's much-needed funding, Beeson says, that would pay for education, transportation and health care programs in the state.

In the absence of state action, though, local officials in Texas say it's up to them now to make sure people are getting counted.

"So much in the state of Texas relies on local government stepping up," says Bruce Elfant, the tax assessor and voter registrar for Travis County here in Austin.

Elfant is a member of the city's Complete Count Committee, which is a city-led group focused just on improving the census in Austin.

"This is a time where local government is going to have to step up again, and I am really proud of what we have here in Travis County," he says.

Elfant says school districts and other municipal government — as well as local businesses — plan to pitch in. In fact, he says the city plans to create a fund for the census. He says that fund will largely rely on money from the private sector.

And nonprofits say they are also gearing up to fill the gap left by state inaction, says Stephanie Swanson with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Texas.

"We realized that basically is going to be up to us," she says. "We will have to rely on our cities, and it will also fall on the shoulders of nonprofits and the community to get out the count."

Swanson says she and others are trying to get nonprofits across the state — and especially trusted community groups — to make this a priority.

But she says it's not going to be easy.

"We have a lot of work that we have to do," Swanson says. "We are still in the initial phases, and I am not quite sure if that really has sunk in with the population here in Texas."

The biggest hurdle, she says, will be funding large-scale education programs.

Texas has one of the largest immigrant populations in the country. That means talk of a possible citizenship question on the census has large swaths of the state nervous about answering the census, even though that question will not be included.

"That's something that we are still struggling to find a good way to talk to people about," Swanson says. "We don't want to scare them, basically."

So far, the state's biggest cities, including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, all have citywide efforts. There are also various small towns and suburban counties.

Beeson says it's a good thing there are people starting to take this seriously. However, it would be ideal, she says, if state officials had a statewide plan to make sure that everyone here is counted. Beeson says many rural counties in Texas probably won't have the resources big cities do to make sure their residents are counted.

"As a proud Texan, that kind of makes me mad," Beeson says. "I feel like we kind of need to step up to the plate and really get on the ball and make sure that we are getting counted just like those Californians are getting counted."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Officials at the state level in Texas have decided not to spend any money on the 2020 census, even though in the past 10 years the population of Texas has grown massively. So business leaders, large cities and even nonprofits in Texas say they're being forced to step in instead. Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin has the story.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: The only state with more people than Texas is California, and just to compare, California plans to spend more than $150 million on the census. And that's why Ann Beeson, the CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, says it's a big problem that Texas isn't spending a dime.

ANN BEESON: California is eating our lunch on the census, and what that's going to mean is more representation and more dollars for California than Texas.

LOPEZ: And Texas' population isn't just big - it's booming. Many of the country's fastest growing cities are here. In fact, by some estimates, Texas is set to gain three to four congressional seats after the census. But that's only if there is an accurate count, and Beeson says a lot of the state's population is actually likely not to be counted.

BEESON: Texas is already at a high risk of an undercount, and that is because we have a higher percentage of what are considered hard-to-count populations. And those include low-income people. They include immigrant families. They include young children; we have a particularly high risk of an undercount of young children because we have so many.

LOPEZ: Beeson says there's research that shows a 1% undercount could cost Texas $300 million federal dollars a year - that's money that would pay for education, transportation and health care programs - which is why local officials across the state say it's their job now to make sure people are getting counted.

BRUCE ELFANT: So much in the state of Texas relies on local government stepping up.

LOPEZ: That's Bruce Elfant. He's the tax assessor and voter registrar for Travis County here in Austin. He's also a member of the city's Complete Count Committee, which is a group focused just on the census.

ELFANT: This is a time where local government's going to have to step up again, and I'm really proud of what we have here in Travis County.

LOPEZ: Elfant says school districts and other municipal government, as well as local businesses, will have to pitch in. And nonprofits say they will, too, says Stephanie Swanson with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Texas.

STEPHANIE SWANSON: We realized then, basically, it was going to be up to us. And so now we will have to rely on our cities and will also fall on the shoulders of nonprofits and the community to get out the count, basically, now.

LOPEZ: Swanson says she and others are trying to get nonprofits across the state, especially trusted community groups, to make this a priority. She says it's not going to be easy.

SWANSON: I think we have a lot of work that we have to do. And so we're still in the initial phases, and I'm not quite sure if that really has sunk in with a lot of the population here in Texas.

LOPEZ: The biggest hurdle will be funding large-scale education programs, Swanson says. Texas has one of the largest immigrant populations in the country, and so talk of a possible citizenship question on the census has those communities particularly nervous about answering the census.

SWANSON: That's something that we're still struggling with, to find a good way to talk to people about it. We don't want to scare them, basically.

LOPEZ: So far, the state's biggest cities - including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin - all have citywide efforts. Ann Beeson with the Center for Public Policy Priorities says it's a good thing there are people starting to take this seriously. But, she says, ideally, the whole state of Texas would have a plan to make sure that everyone here is counted.

BEESON: And as a proud Texan, that kind of makes me mad. I mean, I feel like we need to kind of step up to the plate and really get on the ball and just make sure that we're getting counted, just like those Californians are getting counted.

LOPEZ: Beeson says one of the biggest reasons Texas officials should step up is that many rural counties in Texas probably won't have the resources big cities do to make sure their residents are counted next year.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "ONSEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.