McALLEN — The mayor here might sound a little hoarse Friday after spending all day promoting the Census in what can only be described as the city’s largest push yet — and he won’t be the only one.
Dozens of city officials, elected and otherwise, spent 12 hours conducting what the city dubbed a reverse telethon on Thursday.
“We had our McAllen city commissioners and mayor and city staff and Census staff, and even Hidalgo County Census staff, calling our McAllen public utility customers, asking them if they filled out the census,” McAllen spokeswoman Xochitl Mora said. “And if they had, ‘great. Thank you so much. We appreciate it.’ If not, ‘how can we help you? Do you have any questions? How can we help you get that Census filled out?’”
The room where commissioners normally gather to discuss city matters transformed into a makeshift telethon stage where groups of about 20 people took turns making more than 1,200 calls as of 1 p.m. Thursday, and taking another 600-plus calls via a separate helpline from people across the Rio Grande Valley who had questions about the decennial count.
“Obviously our goal is McAllen, but we’re reaching well beyond McAllen. We’re reaching even beyond Hidalgo County,” McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said. “So the message is the same wherever that person may be: it is critically important to each person’s community to be part of the Census.”
Mora’s communication staff also set up several television sets around the room, where they conducted live interviews with all types of community leaders, who took turns making their case for participating in the decennial count. Those leaders included politicians, educators and members of organizations that provide vital services to the community and are funded based on Census counts.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling estimated he had conducted about 30 interviews with those community leaders and members of the media by about 3:30 p.m.
“I’m tired of hearing myself talk, you know? Like, this guy never shuts up,” he said jokingly.
Still, a Census undercount is no laughing matter.
“If you look at it all, you realize how important the Census is to so many aspects of our life — from drainage and streets to child nutrition. I mean, it’s just so much,” Darling said. “And if you don’t fill out the Census, for the next 10 years, it’s going to affect somebody’s life every day. And it could be your neighbor, it could be a friend, it could be a relative, but it’s gonna affect somebody — and it could be you.”
As of Tuesday, the response rate for McAllen was 56.8%, Mora said. Hidalgo County had a response rate of 49.9% and the state’s overall rate was 59.2%
“Getting up to 50% is pretty easy, but after that, you gotta really start working it,” Darling said, noting the city had a 65% response rate in 2010. “We have our work cut out in front of us.”
The reverse telethon was organized to drive that rate up, and the idea for the event born as a result of the pandemic, city officials said.
“So obviously the pandemic and all that has happened since then changed all of (our plans),” Mora said. “And so we put a pause in our efforts and our outreach, just trying to figure out what we could do to safely reach out to the community, and as everyone adapted to the new normal…it kind of made sense.”
Rodriguez, who chairs the McAllen Complete Census Count Committee, said the event was supposed to happen in July, but COVID-19 once again got in the way.
But after the Census deadline was moved up a month from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30, it made it even more apparent to city leaders that the event needed to happen sooner rather than later.
“So that really forced us into getting it done now,” Rodriguez said, adding that city officials are considering launching a second reverse telethon.
“So it’s gone very well,” he said. “We’re surprised by the success of this.”
One volunteer estimated helping about 200 people fill out the questionnaire, Mora said.
“And so whether they’re from here in McAllen or just anywhere here in the Rio Grande Valley, we understand that that is a benefit to us all,” she said. “It is so vitally important that every person who lives in this area fills out the Census so that we can receive the federal dollars and resources that we need to be able to provide those services and infrastructure for the community.”
McAllen will continue to answer questions from anyone across South Texas via a helpline that can be reached by calling (956) 681-4900. The line will be available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday until Sept. 30, when the Census ends.
McAllen is also offering tablets at various city facilities so people who don’t have access to either the equipment or internet can fill out the questionnaire. Those locations are McAllen City Hall, McAllen Public Library and the city’s community centers, including Lark, Las Palmas and Palmview.