"The Numbers Game" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Thousands of people aren’t getting counted in some of Texas’ largest counties, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, and it could mean financial and political trouble for the state as the decennial national count heads this way next month. Minority advocates and lawmakers, especially those from urban areas and from South Texas, where a large swath of low-income Hispanic residents are likely to go uncounted, are urging Gov. Rick Perry to help ensure the census count is complete. But so far their requests have gone unanswered.
A September 2001 study commissioned by the U.S. Census Monitoring Board and conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that more than 373,000 Texans were not counted in 2000, resulting in a net loss of more than $1 billion in federal monies that would have gone to support schools, hospitals, social services and transportation projects over the last decade. That poor showing has prompted the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to launch its own Complete Count Committee for this year’s census. The task is something the group and its supporters insist should be undertaken by state leaders. “We are asking the governor to work with the U.S. Census Bureau and to issue a directive to all state agencies to promote the census because we feel that it’s crucial,” said MALDEF attorney Luis Figueroa.
Eight Texas counties, including most of the largest, are included on the Census Bureau’s list of the top 50 hard-to-count counties in the U.S. (Areas considered “hard-to-count” include those where a large majority receives public assistance; where renters are common; households with large numbers of children; areas with high non-English proficiency, and dwellings where multiple families live.) Harris County sits at number 5, with 19.1 percent of its approximately 3.4 million residents living in these areas. It is followed by Dallas County in the number 10 spot, with 16.4 percent of its 2.22 million, and Hidalgo County at number 11, with 57 percent of its 540,000 residents living in these areas. Bexar County is in number 32 on the list, with 10.6 percent of its 1.4 million in hard-to-count areas, and Tarrant County is number 36, with 9.3 percent of its 1.45 million residents affected. Travis County sits at 38 (15.3 percent of its 812,000), El Paso County at 42 (16.7 percent of its 680,000) and Cameron County at 45 (30 percent of its 335,000).
The undercounted population translates to less political clout in Washington, because the state's population, as determined by the census, is the blueprint for the next round of redistricting the subsequent political maps that determine the state's House, Senate, and congressional boundaries. It also means less money earmarked for Texas. The "federal funding loss" associated with undercounting, according to the PriceWaterhouseCoopers report, is estimated to be $2,913 per uncounted person.
States can establish official Complete Count Committees to raise awareness about — and encourage participation in — the census. More than three-dozen states have taken the initiative to create such committees, including California and New York. (Like Texas, California has eight counties on the top 50 list; New York has seven.) Though some cities and counties in Texas have done so, the state has not. State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, wrote Perry in October to ask he take a more proactive role in promoting the census. So far, Villarreal said, the governor has not responded. “The state needs to be a leader in the process and it is not being a leader,” said Villarreal, the vice-chairman of the House Redistricting Committee. “I’ve yet to hear back from Gov. Perry and it’s regretful. Other states are working very hard to make sure that all their people get counted.”
In a statement released Tuesday Perry did not respond directly when asked why he has yet to answer Villarreal. However, Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman in the governor's office, said the office believes it is "in the best interest of our state in terms of representation and our tax dollars flowing back to Texas for every Texan to be counted in the census," and said the office "will look at ways to help ensure that happens."
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said encouraging state agencies to promote the census is a better use of resources than the ill-fated commercial run by the Census Bureau during the Super Bowl. The estimated $2.5 million price tag of the spot drew the ire of many. Cornyn agreed that urging state leaders to be proactive would be more efficient. “It’s very important to get an accurate and complete count of everybody that’s here in our state, because a lot of federal formulas flow from that,” he said.
State Rep. Aaron Peña, whose South Texas district includes part of Hidalgo County, fears those congressional seats, like the federal dollars, could go elsewhere. “If we have a low coun't you’ll see those extra seats go to California or some other state that has a better count system,” he said.
Add to that the current budget woes the state faces, Peña said, and it’s a two-tiered problem. “This cycle, Texas is going to have a very difficult time balancing the budget,” he said. “The federal dollars that we receive, that are apportioned for Texas, are important for our future. Otherwise taxes might have to be raised to build highways and do other things.”
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