In some corners of the state, the meticulous planning spanned more than two years.
Detailed maps of Texas communities were pored over. A ground game to knock on doors was worked out, and plans for educational meetings and seminars were set. It was all in service of getting the high-stakes, once-a-decade census of everyone living in the state right.
Then came the coronavirus.
Now, with the count already underway, the contingent of local government employees, service providers and volunteers who had been working to breach the gap left when state officials decided not to fund any census outreach work are scrambling to figure out how to urge Texans to respond to the census amid a pandemic that’s forcing everyone to keep their distance.
The constitutionally mandated count that began in Texas last week is supposed to wrap up by July. While the U.S. Census Bureau has said it's monitoring the evolving coronavirus situation, it has not changed its deadlines so far, leaving communities to press forward with their efforts to get everyone counted by the summer.
But the pandemic is making what was already a hard-to-count state that much tougher to enumerate and further raising the stakes for the Texans — residents who don’t speak English, people living in poverty and immigrants, to name a few — who were already at the highest risk of being missed.
“From the beginning, we identified this as a ground game. The more people we could physically talk to, the better,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, a planning and development director for the city of Houston who has been leading the community’s census outreach efforts. “We were shaking hands and kissing babies. Well, those two things are not doable right now, so how do we replace that with another ‘high-touch’ circumstance that will convey the message as compelling as a face-to-face conversation?”
A complete count will prove crucial to the state’s social, political and economic future. The census serves as a roadmap for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds Texas gets every year, and for how communities are built. It determines everything from whether early childhood programs will have enough money to where new grocery stores open.
A small portion of households — like those in Texas colonias, impoverished subdivisions that don’t have paved roads, much less mailboxes — are supposed to get paper questionnaires dropped off in person. But most Texas households began receiving invitations in the mail from the U.S. Census Bureau last Thursday, asking them to fill out the short questionnaire online or by phone.
Without sufficient funds, locals working on the census had been waiting until just before the invitations went out to ramp up their efforts, but the bureau’s invites ended up landing just as the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak ramped up, closing off many of the pathways those working on census outreach efforts had planned to pursue. With health officials imploring people to isolate at home and avoid public places, those working on the census face a new, urgent question: How do you safely pursue outreach without risking the spread of the coronavirus?
Some outreach efforts were supposed to be routed through Texas classrooms, but school districts across the state have extended their spring breaks. Some may not be coming back before the school year’s end. Now officials like Wallace Brown in Houston are pushing for rushed print jobs for informational census coloring sheets and flyers to send home with the meals school districts are providing amid those closures for families in need.
“I suddenly need 6,000 of them tomorrow,” Wallace Brown said, juggling a reporter’s call while making one of those requests to a print shop. “We may not have people there, but we’ll have materials there when the meals are picked up.”
In Dallas, officials working on census outreach are also hoping to piggyback on school districts’ coronavirus response by asking superintendents sending out updates to parents on school closures to also include messaging about the census, said Dallas County Treasurer Pauline Medrano, who is part of the city of Dallas’ census outreach committee.
Across the state, locals working on census efforts have already seen a slew of event cancellations or postponements trip up their efforts. In Dallas, Medrano’s team planned to distribute census materials at various job fairs and was set to have a booth along the route of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“We just have to wrap our heads around our current situation, and we’ve got to think outside the box,” Medrano said.
Dallas is brainstorming how to replace in-person outreach with campaigns that both leverage Texans’ use of social media and still reach communities that aren’t online. Hundreds of thousands of Dallas residents who are considered hard to count don’t have access to the internet. Options include phone banks and radio spots, or distributing flyers at locations like grocery stores and pharmacies that will remain open, Medrano said.
In El Paso, officials are working to bolster their digital campaigns to drive up response rates while everyone is "hunkered down," but they will also rely on texting outreach — similar to what's political campaigns use — in rural communities they won't be able to reach in person, said county commissioner David Stout.
"It's really quite unfortunate, and I think it's going to make things a lot more difficult for us," Stout said. "This is the reality we're living with right now, and it's going to be the new normal for a number of weeks, if not months."
Officials in Texas were always starting from behind on the census because Texas is home to millions of residents who fall into categories among the hardest to count. The communities that most depend on the political representation and millions of dollars tied to the count are historically at the highest risk of being missed.
That was further complicated by the fears raised by the Trump administration’s failed effort to get a citizenship question on the questionnaire. And Republican state lawmakers’ refusal to put any money toward outreach efforts left the hard work of counting communities up to local efforts. (Other states are shelling out millions of dollars for the census.)
In some communities, particularly those that couldn’t form outreach plans without any funds, financial aid came in from philanthropic support. Nearly $400,000 in outreach grants from the United Way for Greater Austin allowed organizations in central Texas to pursue ways to encourage underserved communities to fill out their questionnaires; those plans are now awash in uncertainty.
“I keep a regional calendar of census events, and all the upcoming ones for the next two weeks have either been canceled, postponed or changed to virtual meetings,” said Mariana Salazar, the 2020 census project director for the United Way of Greater Austin.
The Austin Area Urban League planned to focus its efforts on the black community, including door-to-door outreach efforts when the count began. Caldwell County planned to put some of the funds toward bilingual outreach in portions of the county with growing Hispanic populations. The Todos Juntos Learning Center, a nonprofit that works with low-income, non-English-speaking families, planned to host two community events and train students to become census canvassers.
The “threats of COVID-19” will force those groups to modify those strategies to keep everyone safe, Salazar said. All large events will be canceled, and canvassing plans will have to shift to leaving door hangers and sending out postcards.
But the efforts to get everyone counted will now play out with the increased sense of urgency that the coronavirus outbreak uniquely offers.
“COVID-19 reminds us of the very importance of being counted,” Salazar said. “Knowing how many of us live in our cities allows us to more effectively and efficiently respond to crises like this one.”
Disclosure: The United Way for Greater Austin has been a financial supporter 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.