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Texas leaves the hard work of chasing an accurate census count to communities

Local governments, nonprofits and churches are stepping into the organizational void left after Republican Texas lawmakers shot down any significant funding for state efforts to avoid an undercount in the 2020 census.

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Under the trio of crosses atop its sandy brick building, the McCabe Roberts Avenue United Methodist Church has a history of bringing people together.

Two churches founded at the turn of the 20th century — one with a mostly white congregation, one mostly black — merged to form the small sanctuary on Beaumont's east side. In the 25 years since that union, the church has established itself as a pillar of the community even as its numbers have dwindled. It’s a place where neighbors tend to the herbs and vegetables growing in a community garden, and where even those who don't attend services can use the church’s Wi-Fi network or a seek a drink of water on a hot day.

Come the spring, the church hopes its status as a gathering point in a mostly black and Hispanic community will help it launch a different kind of ministry.

The nation is about to embark on its massive, once-a-decade effort to quantify where people live. How many Texans are counted or missed in that census will fundamentally shape the state's political and economic future. Mistakes can't be easily corrected for another decade. Communities like the one McCabe Roberts Avenue church serves most depend on the representation and millions of dollars tied to the count. And they are historically at the highest risk of being missed.

Church leaders want to ensure that, this time, their people are counted by helping its largely elderly congregation and people living nearby fill out the proper census forms. The church is planning to transform one of its halls into what Ava Graves, the church’s first lady, described as a “count center” — a sort of rally point that will be open seven days a week and stocked with computer tablets so folks living in areas with limited internet access can fill out their questionnaires.

McCabe Roberts Avenue’s footprint may be small, but Graves said church leadership feels called to help its neighbors.

“God doesn’t count numbers,” Graves said, “but God makes numbers count.”

Being counted in the census is the first step to being accounted for by the government. The final census count will flow down to Texans’ daily lives, determining everything from funding for early childhood programs to which roads are built or repaired. The count also builds communities, playing a role in where grocery stores are built and whether schools will be large enough to host their students.

But church leaders can expect little help from the state in marshaling its numbers. While other states are putting millions of dollars toward similar efforts, Texas leaders have set aside no money to facilitate the count. An expansive brigade of local government employees, service providers and volunteers is working to fill the resulting gap — particularly in smaller communities — dependent largely on whatever philanthropic dollars they can round up.

Millions of Texas residents fall into the categories of people among the hardest to count — immigrants, poor Texans, non-English speakers, to name a few. Fears of an undercount mean efforts like the Beaumont church’s will be repeated across the state.

“At the local level, everyone gets it because they live and breathe what not having enough resources means,” said Mariana Salazar, the census project director for United Way for Greater Austin.

Across the state, local officials, nonprofit organizations and community groups are gearing up with marketing campaigns, maps for block walks and plans for counting stations in hopes of reaching the members of their communities that are likely to take more prodding or require more assistance in filling out their census questionnaires.

In some areas, those efforts will live and die by how much philanthropic support can be mustered. The United Way for Greater Austin is giving away nearly $400,000 in central Texas alone; although funding is not tracked on a statewide basis, other affiliates are also distributing dollars across the state. The Hogg Foundation is funding $2.1 million worth of initiatives to reach Texans in 58 counties, including the work at McCabe Roberts Avenue United Methodist Church. The Center for Public Policy Priorities, which has been at the forefront of census preparations in the state, partnered with Communities Foundation of Texas to raise $1.3 million for a statewide initiative that includes grants for local efforts.

Some of the state's big cities began preparing for the census nearly two years ago, planning joint campaigns that also rely, in part, on private dollars.

Smaller and more rural communities had thought state lawmakers would surely invest some dollars toward an accurate count to ensure Texas reached the huge population gains the state is expected to post. Instead, they’ve scrambled to pull together financial aid and enough sweat equity ahead of March and April, when census questionnaires are expected to be filled out.

“It’s important to get this right,” said John Boswell, the director of economic development for the city of Corsicana and Navarro County. “An undercount for someone who is as young as 6 or 7 — they’re in 12th grade before you get a chance to adjust those figures again.”

In Corsicana, local officials are using grant money to bolster a promotional campaign, with a particular focus on schools and large manufacturing employers in the area. In South Texas, rural public transit agencies — which rely on government funds to keep running — plan to use philanthropic funds to train their bus drivers to serve as census ambassadors, hoping to capture data from the hundreds of thousands of riders they regularly shuttle. In Waco, the city’s census committee is working with members of the local Hispanic chamber of commerce, who are planning to trade in their business attire for walking shoes to canvass for increased participation in mostly Hispanic areas of the city.

Waco's efforts to educate the community about the importance of the census, including a media blitz closer to the actual count, also rely on philanthropy — an outcome that Dale Fisseler, a co-chair of Waco’s census committee, chalks up to failures at both the federal and state levels to adequately fund the census and get-out-the-count efforts.

“I’d say both of them kind of backed away from their responsibilities,” Fisseler said.

California lawmakers are shelling out about $187 million to mount that state's census campaign. But during last year's legislative session, Texas lawmakers declined to put additional state dollars toward the census. It wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of Democrats.

Democratic lawmakers filed bills to create a statewide census outreach committee and set aside grants for local outreach efforts, but the proposals were virtually dead on arrival. Efforts to separately earmark between $5 million and $50 million in the state budget for census grants didn’t make it into the final budget.

The chief budget writers in the House and Senate, both Republicans, either declined to discuss the issue or did not respond to questions about why the census funding was not approved.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott also declined to answer questions about census funding, noting that the governor has charged Secretary of State Ruth Hughs with spearheading the state’s efforts for an accurate count.

“To achieve that goal, the secretary of state's team is coordinating with state and federal agencies and working to ensure that Texas will enhance participation in the census process,” John Wittman, the spokesman, said in an email. “The governor’s office is working closely with Secretary Hughs to ensure every Texan is counted.”

Hughs convened a roundtable discussion in December among state agency representatives to coordinate census efforts, which was documented in a brief press release from her office. But neither the governor nor the secretary of state’s office would provide specifics about those efforts.

The state’s reticence about the census comes amid a politicization of what was once a high-stakes but mostly civil assignment that took place every 10 years.

The upcoming count was marred by a drawn-out court battle as Republicans pushed to include a question about citizenship in the census — a decision that experts warned would depress responses among some people of color and immigrants fearful of providing that information to the government. Although the question was ultimately blocked, local officials in Texas say they’re now expending resources to tamp down the distrust provoked among some of their constituents.

The jousting over funding has also led to concerns that an undercount among people who are regarded as harder to count, including Hispanics, immigrants and poor Texans, could benefit Republicans when lawmakers set out to redraw the state’s political maps next year to adjust for population change. If traditionally Democratic voters are missed in the tally, the state maps of districts for Congress and the Legislature will lean Republican.

"This is about maintaining power," said state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, who fought for state funding for the census. "I think Republicans are doing everything they can to maintain power, and that includes at the federal level, including these types of questions and limiting the funding for census, and then at the state level doing nothing."

Politics aside, the state and local governments both depend on federal funding parceled out based on the count to draft the budgets that keep the state and its counties and cities running. Every person missed equals potentially lost funding.

That’s why officials in Hidalgo County have been in planning mode for nearly three years and have set aside a low six-figure budget to put toward an accurate count.

The border county is hoping to avoid a repeat of 2010, when the county ended up suing the federal government saying it was undercounted. But it’s poised to face serious challenges for the upcoming count — its population is mostly Hispanic, and the county is home to more than 238,000 immigrants. A quarter of a million residents live in unincorporated areas and face limited internet access. And many of its residents live in colonias, impoverished subdivisions that don’t have paved roads, much less mailboxes to which the census materials can be delivered.

The county has brought together officials from chambers of commerce, community organizations, various school districts and 20 different municipalities to tackle its census challenges. When the response window opens in March, they plan to track census response rates in real time and knock on doors of homes that haven’t responded. They’re hoping to set up pop-up kiosks in grocery stores and in the break rooms of major employers in the region so residents can fill out their questionnaires.

But despite a plan that’s years in the making, the scarcity of resources has held Hidalgo County back, delaying even the printing of flyers promoting the census. And as in other small communities, county employees are still moonlighting as census organizers because Hidalgo couldn’t afford to hire the five-person team that will actually oversee these efforts until this year.

“Certainly we were hoping to do more with more resources allocated,” said Erika Reyna-Velazquez, the county judge’s assistant chief of staff who has been coordinating census efforts. “We’re just having to be more cautious.”

Disclosure: The United Way for Greater Austin, Center for Public Policy Priorities and Communities Foundation of Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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