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Census Changes Could Take Political Power, Funding From Texas Latinos Already Hit Hard By COVID-19

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Texas’ growing Latino population is poised to be significantly undercounted in this year’s census, following a slew of recent Trump administration moves.

Advocates say that means Latinos could face a decade of diminished political power and underfunding for essential government services as they try to recover from a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting them.

The census is a national head count that happens every 10 years. It determines how much federal funding states and communities get, as well as how much political representation they get.

Lila Valencia, a senior demographer at the Texas Demographic Center at UT San Antonio, said Latinos made up half the total population growth in Texas between 2010 and 2019.

“They are adding the largest numbers of people to the Texas population of any other race [or] ethnicity groups,” she said. Because of this growth, civic groups across the country had been preparing outreach campaigns for the census.

Genesis Sanchez, the Texas regional census campaign manager for NALEO, said the stakes for Latinos are high.

“If we don’t get counted … then we won’t have our political power,” she said. “It continues to get manipulated, whether it’s through redistricting or then the allocation of resources.”

Latinos and other racial minorities, including the state’s fast-growing Asian population, were already going to be difficult to count, because they are less likely to respond to the census – either online, over the phone or by mail.

“We have language barriers,” Alice Yi with the Austin Asian Complete Count Committee said. “We also have knowledge barriers. Many immigrant families do not know what the census is about.”

Alice Yi with the Austin Asian Complete Count Committee speaks during the opening of the Central Texas Census Office last October.
Alice Yi with the Austin Asian Complete Count Committee speaks during the opening of the Central Texas Census Office last October.

Yi said there’s also a lot of mistrust when it comes to the Trump administration, which fought and failed to add a citizenship question to the census. Even though the question isn’t included, she said, immigrant communities fear what the census data will be used for.

“We are worried,” Yi said. “We are scared about this administration and what they can do. They don’t trust the government when using the census data.”

And now there are even more worries, Yi said, following a recent memo from the White House directing state lawmakers across the country to exclude undocumented people when they draw up political boundaries next year.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat from Austin, said these moves have all been a blatant effort to suppress the influence of Latinos as Texas is poised to gain more congressional seats next year.

“I think it is done for political reasons,” he said. “I believe that the Trump administration knows that through apportionment – on the congressional side – that many states stand to gain more seats. And those seats may be Democratic, and I think this is an attempt to stem that.”

Another blow, Rodriguez said, was the Trump administration’s decision to stop the census a month early. Instead of finishing in late October, census workers now have to finish by the end of next month.

Valencia said that could be a problem for communities that haven’t been responding to the census.

“Some of the areas that have the lowest response rates to the 2020 census are also areas of the state with large shares of Hispanic populations,” she said.

Valencia has looked at how different counties and communities within Texas have been responding this year compared to the last census in 2010 – in which they were also undercounted.

She said the five Texas counties with the largest number of Latinos – Harris, Bexar, Dallas, Hidalgo and El Paso – haven’t been able to meet or exceed their 2010 response rate.

“That really means that the Census Bureau will have more work to do than they did in 2010,” she said, “and they will also have less time to do it in.”

About half the state’s Hispanic population lives in those five counties. But there are also a lot of rural areas with large Hispanic populations that don’t have regular postal service and have bad internet service – as well as high rates of poverty. Valencia said the combination of these factors contributes to lower response rates.

According to her data, there are about 51 counties in the state in the lowest percentile of response rates. About 22 of those counties have a population that is more than half Latino.

Valencia said response rates for these counties range from as low as 14.4% to 37.4%, which leaves “more than two thirds of the housing units left to be enumerated.”

Katie Martin Lightfoot, a census coordinator with a public policy group called Every Texan, said the combination of COVID-19 restrictions and a shorter timeline for the count spells trouble for communities of color.

“There is a great fear again that folks that have been historically undercounted are going to be undercounted again on this 2020 census,” she said.

Lightfoot says census workers are working really hard to make this new deadline.

“They have started the door-to-door knocking in Texas, but they have only started in the major cities,” she said. “So when we think about places like the Valley or West Texas, where there are these high concentrations of Latinos, there is a big fear there that they are going to be missed.”

Besides losing potential political representation, Sanchez said, Latino communities will lose out on money for things like health care, food assistance, transportation and education for the next 10 years.

And in that time, she said, the Latino community will probably be recovering from the devastating effects of the pandemic.

“COVID has hit Latinos particularly hard, especially here in Texas and especially in places like El Paso, South Texas and the [Rio Grande Valley],” she said. “So you have this double whammy kind of situation.”

Sanchez said the census is not top of mind for many Latinos who are dealing with high rates of infection, death and financial stress. According to state health officials, Hispanic Texans make up about 40% of the state's population, but 48% of the state's confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

In Austin, Latinos are twice as likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19. And according to the Pew Research Center, unemployment among Latinos peaked at almost 19% earlier this year.

In the hopes of getting more people counted in the coming weeks, volunteers have been calling undercounted areas to convince people to respond to the census before it’s too late.

Ultimately, Sanchez said this is a particularly painful time to set up Latinos for inadequate government services and a diminished political voice.

“Our communities are really suffering and they are distracted, they are not thinking about how they are going to participate in the census,” she said. “They can’t envision the long term when their short term is so difficult. It just feels unbelievably cruel to attack our communities over and over again in the middle of a pandemic.”

Got a tip? Email Ashley Lopez at alopez@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.

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