Snubbed by Texas lawmakers, local officials look to children for help to avoid a census undercount

Hoping to avoid an undercount of thousands of Hispanic and black Texans, Dallas, Harris and Hidalgo counties believe getting children engaged can bring families to participate in the 2020 census.

Counties and community leaders across Texas are making schools and students a cornerstone of their census outreach efforts.
Counties and community leaders across Texas are making schools and students a cornerstone of their census outreach efforts.  Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Teresa Flores knows the costs of a census undercount as well as anyone.

As the executive director of the Hidalgo County Head Start Program, one of the area's most underfunded services, she watched low funding after a 2010 undercount cap the program's maximum enrollment around 3,600 students.

More than 14,000 other children could qualify for the program, Flores estimates, but she barely has enough money to maintain the current level of enrollment — even with additional state grants.

Many of her students come from immigrant and non-English speaking households, two groups that are among the hardest to count in Texas. Though the efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form failed, she's spoken with families who still fear inquires into their citizenship. But as someone with a long-established role in the community, Flores said she's been able to relieve anxieties about sending information to the government and correct misinformation. By herself though, she can't do that for everyone.

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In looking for new approaches to census engagement — ones that residents can trust — the Hidalgo County committee focused on getting a complete count of the area's population is increasingly targeting its outreach toward an unconventional group of residents: children and teenagers.

"When parents come and sign their children in and out, we're able to speak with them about their participation," Flores said. "Children could be the best people to continue those conversations all night long once they get home, and ease those concerns on a long-term basis."

Hidalgo County leaders aren't alone. With billions in federal funding at stake and a possible undercount of the state's Hispanic and black population looming, other counties and community groups across Texas are making schools and students a cornerstone of their attempts to cut through a lack of engagement in the census and boost participation among communities that are historically missed in the count.

Erika Reyna-Velazquez is among those who believe children can be the ones to both break down the ingrained fear and mistrust of government some families cite as the reason they don't participate and educate them about the effects of non-participation.

After the last legislative session closed with lawmakers spending no money on census efforts, Texas became one of fewer than 15 states without a statewide plan for the decennial count. But she agreed with Flores that damage to residents' perception of the census had already been done by the failed citizenship question debate. The lack of state funding only exacerbated the need to brainstorm new forms of engagement, said Reyna-Velazquez, who is leading the county's census efforts.

As traditional neighborhood canvassing became a less viable option for residents too afraid to even open up their doors, Reyna-Velazquez said working through children across the county became a greater priority.

"We realized they could be an incredible way to get families engaged," Reyna-Velazquez said. "They're the ones who can remind their parents why they should care about the census and need to respond. Who can say, as children, this is why my siblings and I need to be counted."

An unorthodox approach

Victoria Le isn't sure whether her parents filled out census forms in 2010. But after working on a complete count campaign at her school, the 18-year-old said she's making sure they do this time.

Le is a recent graduate of Alief Early College High School in southwest Houston, where she and 15 other students spent months researching new approaches to fighting an undercount and marketing those plans to hard to count residents. Their work was initially regarded by other students as nothing more than a minor passion project, Le said.

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Then the group threw its first major event last spring, where students competed for prizes as they learned more about the census and ways to get their families engaged.

"It was just an insane success," said Jordan Carswell, the program's director. "When people see half the student body showing up and going completely crazy over census games, they start asking questions. They knew how to get their peers energized, and when you see how passionate they are about it, it's hard to not to feel the same way."

Carswell said the campaign came together when Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked him to get students involved with census engagement. Alief ISD is part of Houston and Harris County's joint $4 million effort to achieve an accurate count. There's also a coalition of more than 50 local nonprofits and organizations working with them to mobilize communities.

Like in other major cities, many of Houston's 2.3 million residents fall into the categories of people that are often the hardest to count. But local officials say they're anticipating the added challenge of widespread displacement after Hurricane Harvey. While more than 13 million people throughout the region were affected, surveys showed Hispanic and black residents reported the highest rates of property loss and slowest recovery times.

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Margaret Wallace Brown, one of the officials leading Houston's census efforts, said the city plans to partner with school districts to better maintain connections with affected families and ensure they're getting information to the right addresses.

In Aldine ISD, which saw thousands of families displaced by the 2017 storm, district spokesperson Sheleah Reed said officials worked with the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 on a few educational presentations for students. The demographics of the district's families — mostly Hispanic with a sizable share of black households — hasn't changed much since then, but Reed said that approach will need to be re-examined in the current political climate.

"We know it's going to be important to get kids more involved, but we're still determining what that looks like because we can't even use 2010 as an example," Reed said. "So much has changed."

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Other community groups are similarly focusing on outreach to students to combat a new obstacle to achieving a full count — the 2020 census will mark the first time the U.S. Census Bureau will ask the majority of people to respond online.

But in Hidalgo County, more than 40 percent of residents don't have internet access in a majority of the county's census tracts.

The advocacy organization La Unión del Pueblo Entero is setting up school outreach to walk students through alternative ways to fill out the census questionnaire, such as by mail or phone. Mi Familia Vota, a national civic organization, also held a series of summer conferences in Houston and Dallas to teach Hispanic high school students about the census in hopes they will help their relatives complete it.

Few groups are placing their full attention on student engagement; they're also building on past collaborations with churches, hospitals and neighborhood businesses. But the increased emphasis on schools hasn't come without its challenges.

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With the summer off and a hectic schedule as schools go back in session, officials from some Texas school districts said census planning isn't as far along as they would like — and they're not sure when they'll have time to make it a bigger priority.

"Our job is to educate and teach our students first. We can't be the ones leading this and going knocking on doors," said Hafedh Azaiez, the superintendent of Donna ISD in Hidalgo County. "But these schools are still trusted by parents, and we just need to figure out how to best leverage that."

An 'enormous challenge'

Ahead of 2020, the stakes are high for Texas' hardest to count residents. Projections show nearly 600,000 Hispanic and black Texans could be missed in the final count. Hispanic residents are at risk of the largest net undercount, while black Texans are expected to see a larger share of their population missed in the count.

Experts say lingering anxieties from the failed citizenship question largely contribute to the projected undercount of Hispanic residents, who make up the largest portion of the state's immigrant population. For black residents, that can be more challenging to explain.

State demographer Lloyd Potter pointed to a host of factors: low homeownership can make tracking down correct addresses challenging. In Dallas, where more than half of the city's black population lives in areas considered hard to count, those difficulties are compounded by the large overlap between impoverished and black residents, Potter said.

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Some residents also say there's a simpler answer: they just don't know why responding to the census matters.

The city's complete count committee is working with staff members in Dallas and Richardson ISDs to ensure parents know that an undercount translates to less funding for their communities. Beyond collaborating directly with parent groups to disseminate information throughout the districts, Dallas County Treasurer Pauline Medrano said they're turning to lunch staff — who are viewed as trustworthy by parents — to communicate census information to children in their daily interactions in hopes the children will then take the information home.

Dallas NAACP president Aubrey Hopper acknowledges there's still a long way to go. But with a new way to bring information into families' homes, he's optimistic the next few months can make a difference.

"We know this is going to be an enormous challenge and working with these students is just one of the approaches we're doubling down on — but it's an extremely important one," Hopper said. "And I believe it can work."