Complete Count Committee Co-Chair Rebecca Cedillo speaks at a Monday press conference.
Rebecca Cedillo co-chairs the local Complete Count Committee, a group of volunteers who hope to assure skittish Bexar County residents about the benefits of being counted in the census. Credit: Jackie Wang / San Antonio Report

San Antonio and Bexar County launched educational efforts for the 2020 Census on Monday, introducing a group of volunteers who will help familiarize the community with and build trust in the census.

The census determines where $675 billion in federal funding goes and the number of congressional representatives states will get. In 2016 alone, Texas received $59 billion through 55 federal spending programs. There are an estimated 1.8 million residents in Bexar County, but County Judge Nelson Wolff said he suspects the number is higher.

“An inaccurate count does add up to a lot of dollars,” Wolff said. “Just a one percent mistake in Texas affects about $300 million in federal funding. We have a lot of work, so let’s get out and start counting.”

The volunteer group, called the Complete Count Committee, is made up of more than 50 volunteers in Bexar County. Committee members will shoulder the responsibility of assuring skittish Bexar County residents that the census will benefit them in future federal funding and representation decisions.

Without that sense of trust, it will be difficult to gather an accurate picture of the Bexar County population, committee co-chair Rebecca Cedillo said.

“A lot of people just don’t want to answer a form,” she said. “We’re vulnerable as human beings, and we want to our information to be kept private. How do we ensure this major effort is kept in such a way that their files are always confidential and always for the purpose they’re designed to have?”

Cedillo said that the committee is also monitoring the possibility of including a citizenship question on the form. The Trump administration has argued that gathering citizenship data is necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Groups such as Texas’ Latino legislative caucuses are challenging that in court, saying that a citizenship question would result in an undercount from immigrants, affecting federal funding distribution and congressional representation.

“That question has been off and on for the last several decades,” Cedillo said. “People who are [citizens] and aren’t hesitate to answer.”

A separate case on the matter goes to the Supreme Court this month, “and we’ll get a decision in June,” Cedillo said. “We will adjust our outreach accordingly. If the question is included, we’d have to deploy a lot more people and resources.”

Dennis Johnson, the deputy regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau 12-state region that includes Texas, said that it was paramount for Texans to participate in the census to ensure an accurate count.

“The more people you have, the more power you have,” Johnson said. “If you choose not to reflect that power in your census, it goes away.”

In 2010, Texas gained four congressional seats after the census reported an increase in population. And Texas stands to gain three more after the 2020 census, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.

“That estimate is based on population projections, but we must have a complete and accurate count to get the number of seats we deserve,” Nirenberg said.

The populations at risk for an undercount include racial and ethnic minorities, homeless people, undocumented people, adults ages 18 to 24, and children under 5 years of age, Cedillo said.

“Those at risk of being undercounted are also at risk of being underfunded and underserved for the next 10 years,” Cedillo said. “We at Bexar County must make every effort to locate them. … It is estimated that in 2020, the census can undercount 1 million people under the age of 5. In 10 years, they will be 15.”

The Complete Count Committee will have volunteers focused on the populations at risk of being undercounted, and the strategy includes targeting the 26 other municipalities within Bexar County and people who live in unincorporated areas. Those areas can be rural, and many residents may lack internet access, Wolff said.

“We estimate 19 to 20 percent-odd people don’t have acres to the internet, which makes it hard for them to participate in the account,” he said.

This year, the Census Bureau is prioritizing online responses over other formats, Johnson said. But people will still be able to mail in paper forms, as well as call a toll-free number to ask questions over the phone. Numbers must be finalized by Dec. 31, 2020.

Bexar County will have three census offices, one of which has already opened. Johnson said he plans on hiring 1,000 people this summer. Each office will have 300 to 400 employees, and by next year, they may have anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000.

“We’re going to be hiring people from the local community,” he said. “People who speak the language will be working there.”

The census questionnaire form will have information in 59 different languages. 

Census Day is April 1, 2020.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.