The 2020 Census has high stakes for the state of Texas. Billions of dollars in federal funding for education, transportation and health care are on the line, and Texas is home to a lot of people that the U.S. Census Bureau has historically had a hard time counting.
U.S. Census Bureau Director Steve Dillingham has visited several Texas cities in the past few weeks to meet with local leaders who are encouraging everyone in their communities to participate.
Texas Public Radio’s Camille Phillips spoke with Dillingham when he stopped by San Antonio to see how the effort is going.
Phillips: “Texas is home to several Hispanic majority counties that are considered hard to count, including rural border counties with informal communities you might have heard of; they're called colonias. What is the Census doing to make sure more people are counted in those communities?”
Dillingham: “The thing(s) that I point to first are the two new technologies with the census. And that is: For the first time in the history of the census you can now answer it by the internet or by telephone, or you can do it on paper. So you have the opportunity, a person has an opportunity to reply in which of any of those three ways that they would like.
“At the same time, if after a prolonged period, after we send five mailings to you, if we don't hear back from you, we do send people out — the census takers — to knock on the doors and to request the information directly from the person. It's less than 10 questions (and) takes less than 10 minutes for most cases, depending on size of family.”
Phillips: “Low-income and Spanish-speaking communities, though, are often part of the digital divide. There are the parts, especially in rural areas like the colonias, that may not have access to the internet. How are you overcoming those barriers?”
Dillingham: “Sure. Actually, the technologies that I mentioned, we see that (as) new tools to reach the hard to count. And I can give you some examples.
“We have been to some of the areas near the southern border that, it's fair to say, that they may not be easily reached, and they're reluctant to talk with people outside their community. So, in those instances, we can take laptops and we can use phones. You can go to the local house of worship, the Catholic church or their — whatever denomination they are — and people there, we can make contact with them and they can actually reply to the census there.
“The trusted voices of the faith based community are very important. So we think that these are two new tools to reach the hard to count. But we do have to explain to them how easy it is and how safe it is. And, in the safety factor, we have to ensure they trust the census. So there's an educational need we're going to meet with our advertising and our communications campaign, but also the trusted voices from the community.
“Today I've met with religious leaders here in San Antonio, and they are serving a very valuable role as well as the elected leaders as well as the nonprofit leadership in communicating that message: We need everyone counted.”
Phillips: “Former census director Steve Murdock called this census the most politicized ever, and this was after there was some evidence that surface about the now not included citizenship question…”
Dillingham: “Let me just answer that very generally. Everyone knows now that the citizenship question is not being asked this time, and so those concerns have really gone away.
“And what we found is, is anyone had those concerns now understand the importance of everyone being counted. So even people that may have disagreed with the idea of having that question in the census are all fully support everyone that I talk with everyone that I work with, and all that I'm aware of, all the leaders in the Hispanic community etc. are encouraging everyone to be counted.
“So I think that by reinforcing the security of it, the safety of it, the — we never share information, personal information with anyone or any agency, not law enforcement or anyone. We collect information, and we produce statistics, which are numbers that cannot be traced to any single individual at all. So we remind people how safe it is. The federal law makes it a crime. I would go to jail for five years and pay a quarter of a million dollar fine if I was to violate it. And the Census Bureau has an outstanding record and has not had any of those prosecutions because that's our job. They're professional, and the data will be protected. It will be safe.”
Phillips: “What I was actually going to ask was like how — what the Census was doing to counter those ideas about it being — Some people have said that the powers that be don't want everyone to be counted.”
Dillingham: “We just — we really counter it with a positive, accurate message. And that is we — everybody wants everyone counted. And I'm looking forward — in the Congress we have bipartisan support across the board in the House and the Senate. Every city I visit, the mayors issue proclamations supporting the 2020 Census.”
Phillips: “Well, Dr. Dillingham, thank you so much for your time.”
TPR's Paul Flahive and Reynaldo Leaños Jr. contributed to this report.