Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a constitutionally-mandated count of everyone living in the nation. This decennial census counts all residents to determine where to draw congressional voting lines as well as where new businesses and jobs will be available. The census also determines how much federal funding states and local communities will receive annually throughout the decade for public education, health care, road construction, and more. Starting March 12, you can complete the 2020 Census online, as well as by phone or mail.
Areas with historically low Census response rates require targeted assistance. These “hard-to-count” communities are where approximately 25 percent of our state’s current population (more than 6 million people) live. Some “hard-to-count” populations facing a greater risk of an undercount include:
- very young children
- college students
- people who live in rural/isolated areas
- people experiencing homelessness
- people with disabilities
- people with limited English proficiency
- the LGBTQ community
- complex households of multi-generational families
Racial and economic disparities factor into why certain hard-to-count populations are more susceptible to an undercount in 2020: Black and Hispanic families often face lower incomes, less Internet access, and higher poverty rates. This is because social, economic and political institutions throughout history have defined the boundaries of racial categories, resulting in long-lasting, systemic social, economic and political hierarchies.
I was born and raised in one of the hardest-to-count regions in the state — the Rio Grande Valley (RGV). Four fast-growing counties make up the RGV, which combined have a 90 percent Hispanic population. Along the Texas-Mexico border, uninsured rates, poverty rates, and drinkable water quality rates are worse than the state average. During the 2010 Census, approximately 25,000-70,000 people in Hidalgo County were missed, which means residents lost out on about $2.5 million in federal funds over the last decade. It’s not a coincidence that the southernmost tip of Texas is also the heaviest populated area in the state without access to a public hospital, and until just a few months ago, was without a functioning Level I trauma center — both of which have been long-standing, high-priority goals for RGV lawmakers.
However, the RGV also has lots of character and vibrancy. The region is home to many Hispanic children whose families have been living in the state since before it became part of the U.S. We value hard work, family unity, and our bicultural way of life. In preparation for the 2020 Census, there have been a tremendous number of local initiatives and community efforts within Hidalgo County to inform residents of what is at stake.
Aside from determining the number of resources your community will have, census records can trace your ancestry and your family’s history of land/property ownership. However, the U.S. Census Bureau keeps this information confidential for 72 years for privacy concerns, which means the latest you can search for is 1940. I recently dug through digital achieves of previous census records to learn more about my family lineage.
The 1930 Census was the earliest U.S. record I could find for my paternal great-grandfather, Domingo González. He was 56, married to Antonia, 44, and eight of their nine children were living with them in Pharr, Texas, ranging between the ages of 5-23. (Their oldest son Leopoldo was in his mid-20’s living on his own.) From this Census record, I can also see that Domingo’s birthplace was Mexico and the year he immigrated to the U.S. was 1910. He was a carpenter who spoke primarily Spanish and had limited reading and writing capabilities.
Public education opportunities were limited and segregated at the time. Domingo and Antonia’s older sons forwent school to contribute to the family financially by working manual jobs. The younger children, however, did have access to a fundamental education at my alma mater school district, the tri-city Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, which was established in 1919. The household’s youngest child is Patricio (my now 95-year-old grandfather), whom the 1930 Census recordkeeper mistakenly listed as a five-year-old female named Patricia.
Throughout that decade, the children grew to reach teenage years and adulthood in the RGV. In the 1940s, the three youngest González brothers served during World War II. Their sister Ernestina served in her own way by working in an industrial factory making military tarps and uniforms, where she lost part of a finger in a sewing machine accident. Meanwhile, sister Ninfa sacrificed a college scholarship opportunity to help her parents at home and use her strong writing skills to communicate with her brothers overseas. All the men returned home safely from war to then start local businesses and loving families of their own.
The 2020 Census will serve as a timestamp of your family’s whereabouts that future generations can find. Since the state has seen extensive population growth in the last century, and especially so in the last decade, accurately documenting our growth in the 2020 Census could allow Texas to gain up to three additional seats in Congress, and will determine how many electoral votes Texas can have in presidential elections for the next decade. Major companies also use this demographic data to determine whether to set up shop in Texas, or whether businesses like HEB will open new grocery stores in your neighborhood.
Additionally, billions of dollars of the federal tax money we send to Washington comes back to Texas annually based on Census numbers to support housing, transportation, and other critical services. If Texans are undercounted, the state may have to pick up the tab for critical programs or eliminate services altogether. Experts say that an undercount of Texas’ population by even one-percent could result in a $300 million loss per year over the next decade in federal funding.
Regarding the 2020 Census, a genuine fear held by families of mixed-immigration status was that there would be an untested, xenophobic citizenship question. But the U.S. Supreme Court called efforts to add that question “distracting” and blocked that question from the 2020 Census. The U.S. Census Bureau is also forbidden from sharing personal information with businesses, landlords, or government agencies, like immigration enforcement officials.
In the past, Texas leaders have worked to count as many people as possible — but not this time. Governors Clements and Bush issued Executive Orders to promote a complete count of Texas residents by creating a state-level Complete Count Committee (CCC) and designating state funding to provide a robust strategy for raising awareness and increasing response rates. However, in preparation for the 2020 Census, Gov. Abbott did not create a CCC, and the Texas Legislature did not allocate a single dollar of our $250.7 billion state budget for 2020-21 toward funding outreach efforts for the 2020 Census.
The landmark law of the 2019 Texas legislative session was a long-overdue school finance reform bill to modernize the public education system in Texas. If children are missed on the 2020 Census, our state loses billions of federal dollars for programs that give children a healthy start in life: Head Start, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”), the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Title I, child care subsidies, Early Childhood Intervention, and school lunches. This is why counting young children, even those under the age of five, is crucial. As infants and toddlers grow over the next 10 years, they will enter elementary school. An accurate count of Texas children will be crucial in making sure educational opportunities are equitable and up to par across the state, regardless of a student’s ZIP code.
More than half of the nation’s 50 states made early plans and million-dollar investments in preparing for the 2020 Census because they know their states will see a return on those investments in federal dollars that help their communities. In the absence of state action and funding, Texas nonprofits and community leaders have stepped up to fill the void. The Center for Public Policy Priorities and partners from various sectors — including faith, business, government, education, health, and community-based organizations — launched a campaign called Texas Counts to enlist, mobilize and support leaders across the state, so they can amplify awareness about the 2020 Census at a county and local level with the goal of counting every Texan.
Complete the 2020 Census today and tell your family, friends, and neighbors to make sure Texas Counts!
Special thank you to my Tía Ninfa Pérez, as well as my cousins Velma Pérez and Santiago Alanis for your contributions to our family history.
A Song I Listened to While Writing: “The Feeling” by The Chainsmokers ft. Kelsea Ballerini. “I’ll tell you a story, before it tells itself.”
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