EDITORIAL: It counts

Relief funding disparity shows accurate census count is vital

The importance of full participation in the census has never been more evident. Officials and advocates for accurate counts have often noted that the numbers affect the amount of taxpayers’ money that is used in their own communities.

Proof of that fact became clear this month when Congress released relief funds to deal with the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant restrictions on business and individual activity. Like many government allocations, the relief funds were doled out at different rates based on different populations.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s office announced that Cameron County missed out on the chance to receive millions more in funding because the Census Bureau estimates it has 423,163 residents. If the number had been 500,000, the county would have been eligible for up to $33.4 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds. Instead the maximum amount the county can seek is $10.2 million.

It’s worth noting that current population estimates are extrapolated from the 2010 official census. Most observers agree that the county suffered a vast undercount in that evaluation; whether that undercount computes to an 80,000 person shortage can be debated, but it offers clear evidence that with the population so close to a funding demarcation, any undercount could cost the county untold millions in state and federal aid over the next decade.

The disparity stems from the way Congress designed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to help communities offset the economic impact of business closures and other precautions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many funding plans, the bill steered larger amounts of money where the population was higher, in order to benefit greater numbers of people. Cities and counties with more than 500,000 residents could apply directly to the federal government, which is allocating it at $180 per capita. Those with smaller populations had to request a share of the funds that were send to the states.

Hidalgo County, with more than 860,000 people, is able to apply for the direct federal allocation. Cameron County must compete with 241 other counties for a share of the $1.85 billion the state received under the CARES bill.

Population is the basis of many similar allocations; that’s the reasoning behind the recent decision of the Rio Grande Valley’s three metropolitan planning organizations, which oversee the region’s transportation infrastructure, to combine into a single entity that could use its higher combined population to access funding at higher rates.

That additional funding means better roads and bridges; better drainage and other storm mitigation projects; and more services for the Valley’s people.

But it all begins with accurate census counts. The deadline to complete the short census form has been extended to Oct. 31 because of the pandemic, so there is still time to send it in. It’s a short, simple process that can be done at website census.gov.

We encourage anyone who has yet to make themselves counted to do so. In a very real sense, participation can bring more of our tax money back to help our own communities.