Fort Worth Lags Behind, While Texas' Largest Cities Put Thousands Toward 2020 Census

Nationwide, states have devoted millions of dollars toward ensuring their residents are accounted for. But in Texas, lawmakers did not budget any money toward census efforts.
by Tessa Weinberg, Fort Worth Star-Telegram | September 3, 2019 AT 3:01 AM

(TNS) — Located in the fastest-growing metro area in the U.S., Fort Worth stands to gain millions in federal funds because of the 2020 Census — dollars that ensure the city’s booming population continues to receive the services it needs.

But without the necessary outreach, the city is at risk of missing out on the funding. And it won’t be getting another chance until 2030.

Nationwide, states have devoted millions of dollars toward ensuring their residents are accounted for. But in Texas, lawmakers did not budget any money toward census efforts.

So cities have stepped up to ensure they’re counted in the constitutionally mandated survey that influences states’ money and power.

A fundraising goal of $1 million was set to support outreach efforts in Dallas. A $650,000 contract to help get an accurate headcount was approved in Houston. And a newly created census program manager position was formed in Austin.

Fort Worth’s commitment so far: a committee, whose members have yet to be publicly announced.

“We’re just a little slow to start,” said Michelle Gutt, a city spokeswoman. “We definitely should have had our complete count committee up and running sooner.”

Experts and advocates warn the clock is ticking as April 1, 2020 — census day — nears.

“Fort Worth represents the largest metropolis that hasn’t really taken all the efforts the other metropolitans have, at this point,” said Luis Figueroa, the legislative and policy director for the Center for Public Policy Priorities. “I do not think it’s too late. But I certainly think that time is of the essence.”

Lack of action at the state level

The once-a-decade count does much more than just give a snapshot of the population. For the next decade, it will help determine how billions in federal funds are distributed and determine congressional seats.

In 2016, the census was the basis for allocating $59 billion in federal funding to Texas, according to the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy. And because of the state’s growth, Texas stands to gain up to three more seats in Congress.

Rep. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, understands the census’ far-reaching effects, which is why he tried to support it from multiple angles this past session.

His bill would have created a statewide committee tasked with ensuring a complete count in Texas and established a grant program to support local outreach. Blanco also requested $50 million from the state budget be allocated toward funding local grants.

But neither proposal became a reality.

“I think politics was a major concern,” Blanco said. “I don’t think that the Republican leadership wanted an issue such as the citizenship question to divide the bodies on the House floor.”

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration from including a U.S. citizenship question.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s research found that if the question had been added, households with non-citizens would be less likely to participate. The ramifications of an undercount would have been strongly felt in Texas, where a little more than 10% of residents were non-citizens between 2013 and 2017.

And the 2020 Census will play into redistricting in 2021, the process by which congressional and state districts are drawn. In Fort Worth, the census will also help shape the creation of two new city council districts that voters approved in 2016.

“Having an accurate count helps create fair maps,” Blanco said. “And we won’t have that accurate data, because the census is underfunded.”

Meanwhile, both Democratic and Republican-leaning states have dedicated millions of dollars from their state budgets to ensure their residents are accounted for.

California has set aside the most, with more than $187 million. Illinois devoted $29 million, New York $20 million, and New Jersey set aside $9 million. Nevada earmarked $5 million and Georgia roughly $3.75 million.

“We operate in a biennium, this was the only shot that we would get,” Blanco said. “Texas missed it.”

Without legislation or funding in the state budget and with lawmakers not set to reconvene until 2021, it largely falls to Gov. Greg Abbott to take action, such as issuing an executive order.

Former Gov. George W. Bush issued one in 2000, tasking the secretary of state to promote census efforts and work with agencies to do so. And a decade before that, then Gov. Bill Clements formed a statewide complete count committee through executive order.

Abbott previously told the Austin American-Statesman that he supported the citizenship question’s addition, and his office did not respond to questions on steps the state plans to take ahead of the census.

Fort Worth’s plans

The city began prepping for the 2010 census over a year and half out, recruiting members for a complete count committee as early as December 2008, according to a final report issued by the committee at the time.

This time around, Fort Worth announced its intentions to start outreach efforts in April, and said the members of the city’s complete count committee would be announced “in the coming weeks.”

It’s been five months since then, and Gutt said the city is still working on finalizing who will serve on it.

The goal is for the committee’s first meeting to take place the third week of September, with monthly meetings following that and the formation of smaller subcommittees to focus on specific areas, like education or business.

Gutt said she’s confident the city can still do its best despite the late start, and stressed the city’s outreach efforts happen year-round through community contacts and the city’s engagement office.

“Staff has been doing a lot of behind the scenes work so that once we have the committee in place, they can really get to work,” Gutt said.

Outreach will be especially important for Fort Worth, in part, because of the extreme growth the city’s experienced.

From 2017-2018, the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area added more residents than any other metropolitan area in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Fort Worth is now the 13th-largest city in the U.S., and most of Tarrant County’s growth is due to an increase in minority populations, especially in the Hispanic community, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

“It’s really crucial that areas like Tarrant County — that has a huge amount of growth, large minority populations, and a lot of hard-to-count areas — really put the resources in to make sure that they are not left behind,” Figueroa said.

Steve Murdock, the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and Texas’ first state demographer, said an undercount would place a greater burden on governments trying to serve more residents with less resources.

“You’d still have to educate those kids, you’d still have to provide other kinds of services, you just wouldn’t get them counted,” Murdock said.

Texas has historically been hard-to-count, and even though census questionnaires are being printed without the citizenship question, advocates fear the damage may have already been done.

“We are relieved that it won’t be on there,” Figueroa said. “But already the message is out there that the question was aimed at deterring people from participating. The message is out there that they may not be able to trust the census form.”

Cities will have to focus their outreach to ensure that’s not the case, involving nonprofits, faith-based communities and more to get the word out, Figueroa said. In Tarrant County, nearly 10% of residents were non-citizens between 2013 and 2017.

Gutt recounted when the city tried to hold meetings with the Spanish-speaking community in the wake of Senate Bill 4, a contentious 2017 law that allows local law enforcement to ask about immigration status.

“Those meetings were not well attended,” Gutt said. “And we realized it was because of a trust factor, that they did not feel comfortable coming to the meetings and speaking out.”

In that case, the city made an effort to partner with organizations who had already built that trust. Gutt said the city hopes to include organizations on the complete count committee who have done the same with hard-to-count populations.

State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, served on the city’s complete count committee back in 2010, and now represents a district that is majority Hispanic. Romero said census workers need to be multilingual to ensure people feel comfortable participating, especially after how the census has been politicized.

“You make sure that the person that is there at the front door is courteous and kind and, if necessary, is able to speak the native language of that person,” Romero said.

Most of the door-to-door interactions will be conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Gutt said while the city has Spanish-speakers on staff, it lacks Vietnamese speakers — a growing population in Tarrant County — but is able to use translation services to ensure needs are met.

There are no plans for the city to create new positions or allocate additional funding toward census outreach efforts, like Texas’ largest cities have done. Gutt said if the committee identified efforts that would require additional funding, those would have to be evaluated.

“It’ll be using existing staff and existing budgets to do the communications,” Gutt said.

Romero said devoting funds from the city’s budget would be a worthwhile investment, pointing to the numerous needs from infrastructure to transportation that are only exacerbated by the city’s growth.

“Our taxes are going to be sent,” Romero said. “If we give it to Washington, we deserve to get it back. Well, how do we get it back? We get it back through making sure that everyone is counted.”

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