With the quickly approaching deadline of Sept. 30, the 2020 census count is coming to a close. Amid a pandemic that has limited outreach efforts to socially-distanced tactics, we could be faced with a severe undercount.

The census is conducted every 10 years, and every person living in the United States and its five territories, regardless of legal status, needs to be counted. It is mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. The census count informs federal funding allocation and determines congressional representation, with population counts deciding the number of seats each state will have in the House of Representatives for the next decade.

As I go about my day and encounter people shopping at the grocery store, driving to work on the highway, or picking up a quick meal in the drive-thru, I wonder: Have they filled out the census? I worry that there will be thousands of people – maybe millions – who will not make the deadline of September 30. 

Not getting counted means that our community could be missing out on millions of the allocated $675 billion in federal funding over the next decade. Not getting counted means funding for crucial programs in health care, housing, and education could be stretched thin. This includes funding for hospitals and emergency service response for pandemics such as the one we are experiencing now. 

Local programs that may be affected include Head Start, school lunches, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the nutritional program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ( SNAP), Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income families, as well as preschool, rural, and adult education programs. Health care programs such as Medicaid for low-income people and Medicare for people overage 65 are also among services that use population statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Though they may understand the importance of being counted, some people fear that their information may fall into the wrong hands if they fill out the census. In particular, our immigrants and undocumented families are afraid that their information will be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and they will be deported. Public housing residents experience similar fears that information will be shared with the housing authorities and they will be evicted if the information they shared does not match that of the authority.  

In order to calm these fears, LULAC San Antonio embarked on an outreach partnership with the Census Bureau to reassure residents that the information they provide remains safe, secure, and protected by federal law. All Census Bureau staff take a lifetime oath to protect personal information submitted and any violation comes with a penalty of up to five years in prison. 

Questions about the sex, age, and race of each person are necessary because federal grants are not only based on the population but also the breakdown of said population.

The pandemic that has hit our country hard has also presented a challenge to the census count locally. People shut their doors to the outside world as the city and county started to shut down to keep COVID-19 from spreading. Census staff started working from home, and census takers weren’t deployed until July.

Recently, LULAC District 15 and several nonprofit organizations have joined the Census Bureau and the City and County Complete Count Committee in staging car caravans through neighborhoods with low census counts to alert residents about the importance of being counted. Other groups joining in included the NAACP, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Ladies of the Red Hat Society, community volunteers, church groups, City Council members, entertainers, and other elected officials. 

As the deadline nears, the Census Bureau is implementing various other ways to reach these “hard to count” populations. A new Mobile Questionnaire Assistance program has recently been launched that offers assistance with responding at locations such as grocery stores and pharmacies in low responding areas.

Nationally, 75 percent of households in the U.S. have been counted, with 64.2 percent reporting online, by phone, or by mail. Locally, according to Berta Rodriguez, the City’s Census Administrator, we are currently behind our 2010 self-response rate in both San Antonio and Bexar County with a self-response count of 63.9 percent. 

Time is of the essence and we all need to communicate the message to all our friends and their friends that much is at stake here. Your count is important to our community so we can all enjoy a better quality of life. So please don’t wait for a census taker to knock on your door or to be mailed an additional paper questionnaire. There are several ways you can still get counted. If it is easier for you to respond by phone you can dial the Census number for English at 844-330-2020 or Spanish 844-468-2020. You can also go online at 2020census.gov.  

Lupe Torres is a volunteer census coordinator for LULAC District 15. She's a board member of the Housing Authority of Bexar County and a graduate of St. Mary's University.