Shared from the 7/20/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

State cedes census outreach

Cities, counties left to conduct, fund own efforts

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Elizabeth Conley / Staff photographer

Cathy L. Lacy, Census Bureau regional director, has the attention of Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during a complete count committee gathering Friday.

Houston and San Antonio officials are pouring millions of dollars into outreach and education efforts ahead of the 2020 census, after they say the state left them in the lurch.

By the numbers

$1,500

The amount in federal funding officials say Houston and Harris County each would lose for each person uncounted.

$300M

The amount in federal funding that Texas could leave on the table with a 1 percent undercount.

$3.4M

The amount Harris County has committed to census outreach efforts.

The once-in-a-decade count of the country’s inhabitants will take place next spring leading up to an April 1 deadline. At stake are billions of dollars in annual federal funding tied to census data, shaping the state’s ability to provide health care and other core services. The population count also determines how many congressional districts states have.

Though it is not uncommon for states to decline to fund such efforts, most have created so-called complete count committees to educate the public about the census, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some states have set aside funding. California, for example, committed more than $154 million for outreach and communication efforts.

In Texas, the biggest counties and cities, including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, are taking on the responsibility without that extra support from the state.

Teaching the public about what the census is and how to fill it out primarily is the job of the federal government, and anything states decide to do is “over and beyond,” said Wendy Under-hill, director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Investing in such efforts could have a big payoff for states like Texas that are growing rapidly, advocates say.

“We’re talking about road paving and money that goes toward education and money that goes toward health care,” said Frances Deviney, chief operating officer for the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “It’s based in part on the census count, and if we don’t have a good count statewide, then we’re not going to get the resources we need.”

Census numbers also dictate congressional representation. Experts tracking population growth say Texas stands to gain three or more new seats. In 2010, Texas was reallocated four.

The George Washington Institute of Public Policy estimated that even a1 percent undercount could mean Texas leaves nearly $300 million in federal funding on the table — more than any other state.

In all, the federal government sends about $60 billion to Texas tied to census figures, according to an estimate by Harris County officials.

Deviney said that while big cities and counties have been able to find the funds to educate their communities, parts of the state with fewer resources, such as rural towns, are less likely to be able to do the same.

“It’s disappointing that we don’t have the same level of commitment from our state leaders (as others do),” she said, “but we’re going to try to fill in the gaps.”

One of the challenges local officials face is reaching populations that traditionally are hard to count, such as children under 5, immigrants, people without permanent addresses, rural residents and people of color, she said.

Reframing narrative

They also will have to work to alleviate fears stemming from the failed effort by the Trump administration to add aquestion about citizenship to the census. A federal judge permanently blocked that action, but word of that has not necessarily spread to all communities, Deviney said.

“Now, we have to create a mindset and reframe the narrative that the census is safe and important,” said Berta Rodriguez, San Antonio’s census administrator. “That’s why funding for messaging was so important.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and the Secretary of State’s Office did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Previous governors, including Bill Clements and George W. Bush, issued executive orders setting up complete count committees. Local leaders, including Mayor Sylvester Turner, have urged Abbott to follow suit.

In April, Turner wrote a letter to Abbott asking the governor to direct $5 million to $10 million in state funding toward census outreach, far less than the $50 million that a bill by state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, would have allocated to astatewide committee.

Turner said he had yet to hear back from Abbott.

“I would certainly hope that the state would join in,” Turner said. “Having a complete and accurate count benefits all of us, benefits the state as awhole, benefits the local entities, as well.”

During this year’s legislative session, Blanco’s bill never received acommittee hearing.

Blanco said he thinks the bill failed because of a lack of political will and a general fear that the subject could turn into a debate over immigration and how Americans should be counted.

Rep. John Zerwas, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, R-Richmond, said lawmakers were focused this session on Republican leadership’s top priority issues of property tax and school finance reform. However, he said, concern over an immigration debate also may have hurt Blanco’s bill, he said.

“I do know that sometimes there’s concern not so much what the bill says but what it could devolve into,” Zerwas said. “It certainly could lend itself to a conversation in that area, and I think we just really weren’t interested in going down that road.”

Texas’ health care budget would take a particularly big hit from a census undercount, said Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation. Federal funding supports more than half of the state’s health care spending, she said, and about a third of the overall biennial budget.

“No sector is as dependent within the state budget in drawing down federal funds, than the health sector,” Marks said. “We stand the most to gain, and the most to lose if there’s an undercount.”

Particularly at risk, Marks said, are Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. If the feds kick in a lower share due to an undercount, Marks said she is not optimistic the state will make up the difference.

Local efforts

San Antonio and Bexar County have teamed up with nonprofits to create their own complete count committee, said Dwayne Robinson, census 2020 liaison for Bexar County. Bexar County is contributing $50,000 to the cause, while San Antonio is contributing $394,000.

The committee still is in the planning stages, Robinson said, and has broken into subcommittees based on populations it hopes to reach, such as military, schools and unincorporated communities.

Some of its projects will include creating marketing materials in English and Spanish explaining the three ways to fill out the census: by mail, by phone and — new this year — online. It also plans to team up with libraries to distribute information and set up stations to complete the census form online.

Similar efforts are underway in Harris County, which has committed $3.4 million to census outreach efforts.

The city of Houston in May entered into a $650,000 contract with a communications firm that will conduct outreach intended to improve response census rates. City Council later will consider approving a second phase of the contract, bringing the total cost to about $1.5 million.

Houston and Harris County also have begun a joint committee, along with Houston in Action, a coalition of more than 50 local organizations that are teaming up to conduct promotional and grassroots engagement in hopes of reaching the county’s hard-to-count communities.

At a news conference Friday ahead of the committee’s first meeting, Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the effort is critical because a large portion of the Houston metro area is not expected to fill out the census if residents are not contacted by groups focused on outreach.

The Census Bureau has given a “low response score” to about a quarter of Harris County households, meaning the bureau does not expect them to respond to the census.

Those include noncitizens and residents displaced by Hurricane Harvey, Hidalgo said. As of May, the city had submitted nearly 22,000 new addresses and 5,000 modified addresses to the Census Bureau, to give the agency the most up-to-date map of Houston households.

“Harris County, as we know, has a high hard-to-count population, a high number of folks who generally are less likely to participate in the census,” Hidalgo said. “We need to make sure that every single person who lives in Harris County participates, and that’s what this effort is about.”

Turner and Hidalgo repeatedly emphasized the financial stakes of the census, which accounts for about $9.7 billion in federal funding for Harris County.

Officials say Houston and Harris County would each lose more than $1,500 in federal funding for each person who goes uncounted. About 61,000 county residents were not counted in the 2010 census, according to the county. taylor.goldenstein@chron.com jasper.scherer@chron.com

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