HARLINGEN — Think of it as a massive hand of Texas Hold ‘Em.
In the center of the brightly lit green felt table are hundreds, truly trillions, of federal poker chip monies just waiting to be raked in by lucky winners if only the cards fall right.
The players eyeing the pot are nervous, and each is hoping those tax dollars about to be dealt away over the next 10 years go home with them, instead of some less-worthy players from other geographical regions of the United States.
Welcome to Census 2020.
For Rio Grande Valley residents, for politicians and city and county employees, for bureaucrats and educators, for business owners and road construction companies, for social workers, Head Start programs and Medicaid recipients, this just might be the biggest story of the coming year.
The Rio Grande Valley, many analysts believe, has been historically undercounted by the U.S. Census Bureau each time the decennial count has been conducted.
But nobody knows by how much.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Ron Garza, executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, which is taking an active role in helping municipalities in the region prepare for Census 2020.
“It’s so hard to pinpoint that,” he added. “We just know from the resources that we provide, and obviously the Census Bureau has also identified, we are severely undercounted. Nationally, we’re probably one of the most undercounted areas.”
Following the 2010 Census, attorneys for Hidalgo County challenging the Census Bureau numbers for the county said the 774,769 people counted there did not include anywhere from 25,000 to 70,000 residents who went uncounted.
If accurate, that would indicate the largest county in the Valley by population was undercounted by between 3.2 percent and 9 percent of its real population.
Census Bureau officials at the time defended their count as being accurate. But this time around, they are paying more attention to the Valley.
In 2010, Garza said, the closest bureau field office was in San Antonio. This year, the Census Bureau has already established an office in McAllen which will become operational sometime next year.
Every 10 years, the Census Bureau, by a law laid out in Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, is required to count every person living in the United States in order to determine representation in Congress.
But the Census count has, like so much involving the federal government, grown into a massively important process by which not just U.S. House of Representatives’ districts are apportioned to which states, but how and where federal monies are spent.
“Every one person we don’t count correctly can mean as much as $1,500 or $1,600 a year,” said McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez, who chairs the city’s Complete Count Committee.
Using estimates by Hidalgo County in its legal battle with the Census Bureau, an undercount of 3.2 percent in the county would mean the annual loss of $37.5 million in federal funding each year at a per-person rate of $1,500 annually.
At 9 percent, the funding shortfall in the county would total $105 million per year in lost federal revenue.
Multiply those numbers over the 10-year Census time period during which federal allocations are made based on population numbers, and extrapolating it to the rest of the Valley, it means Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy counties are potentially losing billions in federal funding each decade.
All of it due to possible Census undercounts.
“In the end, that means schools, that means roads, that means all those things that we maybe take for granted on a day-in, day-out basis,” Rodriguez said. “It means dollars to be counted and it means dollars to our community, and those dollars translate to a way of life we’re used to.”
In Harlingen, Gabe Gonzalez, an assistant city manager, already is planning the city’s strategy to achieve a full and accurate Census count.
The city’s Complete Count Committee should be in place early next year, and city commissioners already have set aside funds to educate residents about the importance of Census 2020.
Gonzalez said city officials see it as an investment.
“We actually allocated $25,000 in this fiscal year for advertising for the Census and I had an item on the agenda to create the Complete Count Committee,” he said. “For next year’s budget, because that actually is the year we do the Census, I’m going to ask for another $25,000 and maybe increase it up to $30,000.”
Gonzalez said the city already has begun analyzing Census Bureau documents to do whatever can be done to ensure every eligible Harlingen resident is counted.
“We actually went through the addresses the Census Bureau had for us and we sent in an additional 1,200 addresses that they didn’t have on their list,” Gonzalez said. “Those addresses could actually be quite a big number for us because some of those could be apartment units, some of them may be single-family residences, so that could have the potential to increase our numbers by quite a bit.
“But here’s the thing: It doesn’t help us to give the Census Bureau locations where people might be living if individuals don’t fill out their Census form,” Gonzalez added. “They have to get counted, and that’s the important part. They have to get counted in order to help the city.”
Census 2020 will see the biggest effort yet to get-out-the-count in the Valley.
Census forms consisting of 10 or 11 questions will be mailed out to each address on the list, and residents must fill them in and mail them back. Only if there is no response will the Census Bureau send out workers to try to ensure residents at a certain address fill out the form.
In McAllen, Rodriguez said his Complete Count Committee was appointed by the mayor and city commission early this year. It was the Valley’s first to form, and has met several times over the past six to nine months.
“We’re developing an advertising campaign, we’re developing a set of meetings where we’ll go out to the residents,” he added. “Imagine, if you will, a United Way campaign. If you’re familiar with that, well this is kind of the same approach but basically on steroids for a different purpose.”
In Weslaco, at the offices of the Lower Rio Grande Development Council, Garza has been pushing Census 2020 for months.
“Number one, local elected officials are much more proactively engaged,” Garza said. “Number two, the U.S. Census Bureau, I have to hand it to them, because they have spent quite a bit of time down here so they understand the undercount vulnerability.
“Number three, I think we’re really ahead of the game in terms of forming Complete Count committees and this year the LRGVDC has done something it hasn’t done in the past, which we’re calling the Regional Census Task Force … so that we provide the education, resources and the technical assistance to the smaller communities and just to make sure we’re all kind of on the same page and we’re all getting the same, accurate information,” he added.
Now filing online
The U.S. Constitution section that authorizes the Census empowers Congress to carry out the census in “such manner as they shall by Law direct.”
For the first time, this Census will include online filing.
“We’re actually going to set up computer banks, probably at the library, the week of the Census so people can come in and fill out their forms online,” said Harlingen’s Gonzalez. “I’m concerned we may not get as many people to come forward if we have to do it electronically.”
McAllen, too, plans to utilize the city’s library to set up computers to make it easy for people who lack one, or who are without access to the internet, to file online.
“It’s going to be one of our challenges this time around, a new challenge,” Chief Rodriguez said, adding that McAllen plans to use the library and also to partner with businesses and social services agencies to provide computer banks for Census filers.
“It’s not a complete loss this time around where if you don’t do it online we lose you in terms of count,” the chief added. “But it’s an evolving process and I see the future as perhaps limited to that type of an application, an online application. This year is the beginning of that, and just like everything else, it’s revolutionary.”
Many people attribute the undercount in the Rio Grande Valley, and other areas of the southern U.S. border, to fears some U.S. residents have of revealing to the federal government that they or a family member at a residence may have a questionable immigration status.
The Census Bureau wants to add, for the first time since 1950, this question to Census 2020: Is this person a citizen of the United States?
At present, a half-dozen lawsuits have been filed to eliminate what would be question No. 11 on the Census form. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to make the final decision on whether the Census Bureau will be allowed to ask it.
Although Title 13 of the U.S. Code specifically forbids an individual’s Census information to be published or shared with another federal or state agency, many living in the United States have concerns about privacy and government, particularly when it may involve residency status.
“That is the absolute best we can communicate, that there are legal guarantees to protect your personal information,” Garza said. “Even having said that, it’s obviously a concern to the community that their personal information would be given. All we can do is express the accuracy of what they’ll do with the information and hopefully everybody kind of trusts in that process.”
Here in the Valley, many people believe trusting the federal government on issues of residency or immigration status may not be an easy sell.
“Maybe that’s why I’ve been tasked this way, someone they can trust, someone that a community can see as reliable and trustworthy,” Chief Rodriguez said of his selection to chair McAllen’s Complete Count Committee.
“We have these suspicions about anything the federal government does,” he added, “so it’s important to allay those fears to the extent that we can with solid information.”