Accurate census count helps determine funding, representation

Posted on July 14, 2020

By Ruth Campbell

Because of all the goodies it can provide, the West Texas Food Bank and Permian Strategic Partnership have teamed up to encourage people to fill out their census forms.

The every decade count helps determine how many representatives go to congress, federal funding for schools, roads, hospitals and even economic development. In Ector County, West Odessa which has 50,000 to 70,000 residents, is persistently undercounted.

Craig Stoker, director of communications for the West Texas Food Bank, said it took him about two minutes to finish the form online. The response rate in Ector is under 50 percent.

“… That is concerning on a few different levels, so we want to make sure that everybody gets counted, that everybody talks to their neighbors and friends and gets counted so that we get our fair share of federal dollars. Maybe we’ll pick up a vote or two in the right direction,” Stoker said.

Brenda McDonald, media specialist for the Dallas Regional Census Center in Lubbock, said the self-response rate as of June 25 for Ector County was 47 percent and 51.8 percent for Midland County.

The deadline to submit the form is Oct. 31. The deadline was extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stoker said it would be good to know how diverse the community has become.

“We are a little more diverse than some people might want to admit. I think it’s very important to know the pockets of the community that exist. I know that throughout the 19 counties we serve, we have kind of two different areas. We’ve got a very metropolitan area in Midland and Odessa and our surrounding communities. Then you get down into Brewster and Presidio counties and it’s a very rural population, so to be able to know the make-up of those communities is to me a part of education. If you can learn more about the people you’re serving, you can ultimately serve them better. You can find programs. There’s all sorts of things that can come from the big, bad federal,” Stoker said.

“Talking about our budget, about 12 percent of the budget of the food bank is reimbursed dollars and that’s only possible because we know who the people are as counted by the census. So if we can get a more accurate count, we can learn more about the demographics and the people we’re serving. That’s all the better in my opinion,” he added.

Stoker said it would impact the ability of the food bank to grow its mission if there isn’t an accurate count of the people in the 19 counties it serves.

“We can’t plan accordingly. We can’t budget accordingly. There’s kind of a five year update that happens every five years that helps us … figure out the federal funding coming back to this area and on the state level too. This is the big real deal showtime. We’ve got to stand up and be counted. That will really go a long way, not only supporting the food bank but supporting our hospitals, supporting our schools, getting money to build our roads. Really just overall improvements to the community,” Stoker said.

Just taking those few minutes to fill out the form can impact a lot of different areas of people’s lives.

“… It doesn’t matter if you’re a client of the food bank or not; this encompasses so many different areas,” Stoker said.

Tracee Bentley, president/chief executive officer of the Permian Strategic Partnership said figuring out how the response is going has been a challenge with the pandemic.

“Really the only way we can measure progress is the numbers that come out of the U.S. Census Bureau. We know there is a bit of a lag time there, at least we think so. I do think, though, that people are starting to become more aware of the census this year and now more than ever the importance of it so we’re seeing some small progress there I think,” Bentley said.

Earlier this year, PSP commissioned a study by The Perryman Group to better understand the economic and fiscal significance of an accurate census count in the Permian.

The Perryman Group economic impact study projects that a 2 percent undercount would result in regional losses of $1.1 billion in gross product, which would be $112 million per year, the loss of 13,135 jobs over the ten years which would be 1,314 jobs lost per year, and a loss of $52.9 million in federal funding for local government entities.

“… So the stakes are really, really high,” Bentley said. “And we have an awful lot to lose, even with a small undercount.”

“So an accurate count for the census is so essential to positioning for the future of the Permian Basin, including ensuring that we get our fair share for essential community programs like education and schools, healthcare, hospitals, transportation and road infrastructure and housing,” she added.

There may be some people who are hesitant to respond to the census out of concern over data privacy.

“But it’s important to understand that the information that we provide for the census is for data purposes only and it’s not shared with any other agency or entity, so it’s very secure and confidential. The other reason we think people aren’t filling out the census is because they still don’t know what it is. Generally speaking, people know what a census is, but I still don’t think they understand we only get one shot every 10 years to fill this out,” Bentley said.

Economic development also relies heavily on census numbers, so the area could miss out on a lot of commercial development if there is an undercount.

“… In Hobbs, N.M., they want a Target really bad and Target looks at census numbers and says OK you now have the population to sustain a store here so we’ll go ahead and put one there. That’s one example. But all the development — commercial development — that our area will miss out on just by getting our numbers wrong, that doesn’t get talked about very often,” Bentley said.

This is the first census count that people can respond to online.

“… It’s never been easier to fill out your census. I think it took me six or seven minutes because I timed it just to see so I could tell people it takes hardly any time,” she said.

She stressed that the information provided in the census is confidential and secure.

“… They strictly want a count,” Bentley said. “If you live in the area more than 50 percent of the time, regardless of whether you’re documented or not, they want to know how many people are there and so trying to explain that to people when they’re already perhaps a little nervous about it, it’s been a challenge. But it does go back to … the other educational piece that we’re trying to really get out there is people say well my family lives in Houston and I’m here for work Monday through Friday and I go home on the weekends so my wife will fill out the census for us in Houston. That’s actually not what they want. Wherever you are physically more than 50 percent of the time, that’s where they want you to fill out your census because it makes sense if you’re somewhere more than 50 percent that’s where the resources for you that follow you should go.”