WESLACO, RGV – Ann Williams Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azteca, urged the board of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council to take action regarding the upcoming 2020 Census.
Speaking on behalf of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, Cass informed LRGVDC members of the changes the U.S. Census Bureau plans to implement and how they could likely result in drastic undercounting for Hidalgo, Starr, Willacy and Cameron County if measures are not taken.
One of the biggest updates for the 2020 Census will be the online submission of questionnaires via a website created by the bureau. Cass is concerned that many residents in the Rio Grande Valley, especially those residing in poverty-stricken areas and colonias, are at a disadvantage because they do not own a computer or have access to the internet.
“We know there’s a digital divide between those of us who are elderly and those of you who are younger, but there’s also a digital divide between our low and very low-income people who don’t have computers, who don’t live in areas where there’s Wi-Fi. And, they are generally the people in this region that are grossly undercounted,” said Cass.
Cass also mentioned the need for residents to know their physical, or 911, address. Unlike those that are mailed, census forms that are picked up from questionnaire assistance centers or “be counted” sites require individuals to write in the physical address of the household being represented. She says that many colonia streets are unnamed or are known by different names between government entities and residents. To be counted, addresses must match and be in the Bureau’s database.
“The Census Bureau really doesn’t count families; they’re looking at addresses. And, we know that in Hidalgo County a lot of people do not know their 911 address,” said Cass. “We have a little over two years to make sure that our folks have their 911 address … The Census won’t take P.O. Boxes, so we need to work and figure out how we’re going to help people find their 911 address.”
To make some headway in this endeavor, Cass is calling on city and county officials to add and verify information on the bureau’s Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) webpage before the Dec. 15 deadline.
For now, Cass says the most pressing issue regarding the Census is its budget. In 2014, a congressional directive determined that the 2020 Census should not cost more than the 2010 Census, which came in at around $12.3 billion. Since then, the Bureau has been largely underfunded, forcing them to strip or cancel pilot and field testing, including a Spanish-language test census in Puerto Rico.
With these cuts to their methodology testing resulting in incomplete or insufficient data, an environment was created for the 2020 Census to be listed at a high risk of failure by the U.S. Government Accountability Office for 2017. The GAO report includes concerns about Bureau’s IT management, canceled field tests and deficient analysis of the root causes of non-participation – all of which were the direct or indirect result of budget cuts. Another controversial initiative – the use of data from other government agencies to complete questionnaires – was proposed to reduce the number of field census workers and relieve the Bureau’s bottom line.
On Oct. 12, Commerce Security Wilbur Ross asked Congress for an additional $3.3 billion to conduct the decennial survey, bringing the total cost to $15.6 billion. For the 2018 fiscal year budget, specifically, he said the bureau needs $187 million more than the $1.5 billion earmarked by the Trump administration to be comfortably operational. Today, the House approved the Senate-amended budget as is for fiscal year 2018.
Even with the approval, the budget is still a blueprint, and Cass is asking that people contact their congressman to request more funding for the Bureau. A letter template drafted by Erika Reyna Velazquez, the assistant chief of staff for the Hidalgo County Judge’s Office, is available for individuals to send out. Along, with the request for funding, the letter also requests that the Rio Grande Valley receives a regional census office, echoing the call by Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (TX-15) last month.
Already predicted to be a disaster by many government officials, Cass hopes that won’t be the case for the Rio Grande Valley. Considering its history with the Census Bureau, including a dismissed lawsuit claiming massive undercounting, Cass says local officials must plan ways to guide residents through the anticipated changes. Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia called a committee together of all the cities in Hidalgo to discuss preparations, and Cass says they would like to do the same for Starr, Willacy and Cameron counties.
“The entities – the cities and the county entities – they can start making preparations,” said Cass. “If it does go digital, how can they set up people who can assist low-income, variable-income people – people without computer savvy – in getting counted? Can they set up a helper at the precinct offices? In the city hall? At the libraries? … [We need] to start thinking about that now so we don’t get caught off-guard. Two years is not a long time.”
Editor’s Note: Here is the proposed letter RGV Equal Voice Network is asking LRGVDC board members to send to members of Congress:
Dear Congressman [Last Name]:
With the 2020 Census deadline quickly approaching, we are organizing efforts in Hidalgo County to achieve an accurate count of all of our residents. The City of [Name] has joined the Hidalgo County 2020 Census Coalition to generate awareness, increase participation, and propose solutions to challenges that have in the past led to undercounts.
As our Congressman, we thank you for your leadership and strong support for Census programs. We also want to share with you some of our concerns regarding the Census Bureau’s ability to implement a successful 2020 enumeration.
We are concerned with the funding level for the Census Bureau, which is $164 million below the agency’s request. Funding uncertainties force the Census Bureau to cancel, streamline, or delay critical 2020 Census planning activities. The Administration’s initial 2018 budget proposal for the Census Bureau is too low to support comprehensive, timely preparations for the census next year. Key activities in 2018 including the traditional ‘dress rehearsal’, finish cost-saving In-Office Address Canvassing procedures, development of a robust communications campaign and language assistance program, scaling up the massive IT architecture needed, and the opening of regional census offices are all critical with this last matter being one of utmost concern for our region.
Given the historical challenges the Census has posed for our region, we request your support for a Regional Census Office in Hidalgo County. We believe a local office will help us attain an accurate count and more adequately capture the rapid growth our community is experiencing.
We urge you to consider our request to help fund the Census Bureau at the necessary level and support a regional office to ensure we all successfully prepare for the 2020 Census.
Editor’s Note: Click here to read a Rio Grande Guardian story about the Rio Grande Valley’s digital divide.