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In Austin, scramble underway in abbreviated census count

Philip Jankowski
The U.S. Census Bureau has seven weeks to finish counting all residents, one month less than it had. It is leading to a mad dash locally to count all Austinites and especially under represented groups.

Efforts to count all Austinites for the 2020 census are in a crunch as on-the-ground census takers work with an abbreviated time frame to count everyone in the city.

Census counters have just seven more weeks to go door-to-door to addresses where people have not responded to the once-in-a-decade count. The time frame is being cut short by a month after a surprise announcement last week blindsided local leaders in the effort to make sure everyone is counted.

Last week, U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced that the federal agency had shortened the data collection period by a month to the end of September.

It gives census enumerators less time to reach out to undercounted areas of Texas and the nation. The census count plays a key role in numerous aspects of politics, representation and, of course, funding.

Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, said Tuesday night that each person counted amounts to about $1,500 of federal money doled out to communities each year. And figuring out exactly where every American lives determines how the state will draw state and national congressional districts, a process in which Texas is expected to gain as many as three seats at the U.S. Capitol.

Elfant called the decision to shorten the time for the census count “inexplicable” during a live streamed conversation with Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

Census counters “started last week,” he said. “At the rate they are going, it would take 66 weeks (to finish). They have seven weeks.”

Unlike most other states, Texas has spent no money on census outreach efforts and did not create a census count committee. The impact is unclear, but Texas so far ranks 39th among states in the rate of responses to the census.

The national average for responses via mail and online is 63.4%. Texas’ response rate is 58.5%. Travis County’s response rate is 62.8%, which is third among Texas counties with populations greater than 1 million, according to the Census Bureau.

In Austin, census tracts that generally include more minorities and students are lagging in the count. The lowest response rates are on the University of Texas campus. Areas on the east side of the city also are below the overall average, according to the Census Bureau.

To combat this, the city of Austin and Travis County together are spending $400,000 to ensure a more accurate count.

But even with the money, Travis County census coordinator John Lawler said moving the deadline up one month has forced his team to scramble.

“We had no idea that the date change was coming and it blindsided us totally,” Lawler said.

Lawler said he has worked to reach out to less-represented communities through a myriad of grassroots organizations that are in close contact with the Austin area’s minority communities.

That includes setting up information booths with census enumerators at places like grocery stores, food banks and community centers. The program also got a $59,000 grant from a consortium of local organizations to advertise on Spanish language radio stations to encourage listeners to take the census.

In an effort that already faced numerous hurdles — most notably the coronavirus pandemic and the controversial attempt for the census to include a citizenship question — Lawler said partnerships with those organizations have been important.

“All these different community-based groups are doing the work to make sure their communities understand,” he said. “But for them and but for the institutional support of Travis County and the city of Austin, I’d be even more concerned that we wouldn’t be able to make a positive difference.”