Census 2020: Coronavirus increases the risk of Latinos not being counted
From left to right: Dr. Lila Valencia (Texas Demographic Center), Ray Shackelford (Houston Area Urban League), Chris Valdez (Houston in Action)
Coronavirus is contributing to the undercount of communities that have been historically marginalized in Texas. What are community-based organizations doing to promote the Census?
By: Jenny Manrique
The Coronavirus pandemic has left community organizers without one of its most valued tools for promoting the Census among Latinos: the door to door campaign.
That is why they have been developing strategies, beyond the digital ones, so that minorities will take the Census 2020 questionnaire, a vital step in receiving resources from the state of Texas in the next 10 years.
“We’ve installed loudspeakers on our cars and large plastic signboards to go through the neighborhoods and tell people to take the Census”, said Juanita Valdez, executive director of La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) during a press conference via Zoom, organized by Ethnic Media Services on the state of the Census in Texas.
LUPE is an organization headquartered in the Rio Grande Valley that works in four counties on the border with Mexico where 2,000 immigrant families live. The majority are field workers, considered essential in this pandemic. “We have lived with the consequences of the underestimation of this demographic group since the last census (2010) … if it continues to be undercounted, our resources will continue to be reduced, the schools will continue without funding and the roads will continue to be deteriorated,” said Valdez.
This area also has the highest number of neighborhoods with unincorporated communities, that is, those that occupy land where there is no local town government. Many of these neighborhoods lack a public street lighting system, its own sewage system infrastructure and access to Internet. “We use Facebook, WhatsApp and Messenger but only among the organizers, who, at the same time, are training the neighborhood leaders to count at least 10 families in their neighborhoods,” added Valdez.
The original strategy of filling out Census questionnaires after religious services or after bazaars or concerts, has been replaced by an intense campaign in ethnic media, telephone marathons, text messages, virtual trips through communities, and even contests.
“We held a contest with two schools in the El Paso Independent School District, with a $1,000 prize for the school that filled out the most questionnaires and we got 130,” said Paulina Lopez of the El Paso YWCA.
That strategy aims to overcome barriers of distrust about the Census that the Latino communities have when it comes to giving information to the government. “There still is fear in the populations that are in the shadows due to the pandemic, but they were also there before the pandemic,” added Sylvia Acosta, executive director of that organization. “A fact that we always highlight is that a child who is born now and is not taken into account by the Census, will not receive resources during its first 10 years,” she added.
In southern Texas, where more than 60% of the population does not have access to Internet, organizations like Laredo AHEC (Area Health Education Center) distribute flyers about the Census in places like food banks and school districts that continue providing lunch to the children.
“We are reaching 35 counties in the area by means of all the available platforms,” said Julie Bazan, executive director of that organization. “Some churches have allowed us to include messages on their congregation Facebook pages… and we’ve encouraged college students who are at home to create video “selfies” promoting the importance of the count.”
The Census Bureau has delayed its online, telephone, or mail-in self-response phase, from July 31 to October 31, and foresees Census workers being able to return to the neighborhoods in August, depending on the evolution of COVID-19.
According to a study by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, Texas receives a little more than $400 billion in federal funds per year, thanks to the numbers obtained in the 2010 census. This money finances a total of 16 federal programs: from Medicaid to CHIP, to educational scholarships and foster care programs and housing. In addition, it defines the number of congressional seats, electoral votes and information for redistricting.
“The more people we count on the ground, the higher the probability that there will be a representative for that region elected by that community who will sit down to speak about its issues,” said Nina Perales, vice-president of litigations for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), when explaining what is at stake in terms of redrawing the states’ political maps with the information from Census 2020.
Redistricting is done every 10 years to define the seats in the House of Representatives or the state board of education, to give a local example. But the deadlines for the final data versus the dates of the Texas legislative session are more complicated during the pandemic.
“There’s always a very short time period for adopting a redistricting plan (the data arrive in December and the legislature starts in January), the courts have found that this contributes to the discrimination against Latino voters,” said Perales. “If the Census convinces Congress to extend these deadlines due to the pandemic, it will be even more chaotic… we might press for a summer session.”
The discriminatory result is also based on the lower response rates to the Census, which are always lower in populations of color. According to data shared by Lila Valencia, senior demographer of the Texas Demographic Center in Houston, since 2010 Hispanics have accounted for 53% of the total population growth. Of all the Texas residents under age 18, only 30% of that population are non-Hispanic white. But that presence in numbers does not necessarily mean greater political representation.
“Latinos have the highest unemployment rates, the largest income gap when compared to their white counterparts, the greatest poverty and the greatest lack of social security,” said Valencia.
So far, 54.3% of Texas households have completed the Census online – an encouraging number in terms of self–response – but the communities that are traditionally difficult to count are underrepresented in that statistic. According to Katie Martin Lightfoot, Census Community Engagement Coordinator for the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, in the diverse districts in south and west Texas, where 25% of Texans live, undercounting is rampant.
“If in the state of Texas we fail to count just 1% of the population, we will lose $300 million per year in the next decade,” said Lightfoot. Even during the time of Coronavirus, employment assistance programs, services for the disabled and stimulus checks driven by the federal government reach working families based on Census data. “It’s very important to make sure everyone counts”, she concluded.