Disabled parking spots are available in the lot next to the Bexar County Courthouse.
The U.S. Census Bureau's announcement in 2017 to offer the survey online has caused concern among local organizations that several populations in San Antonio, including the disabled, could be left out. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Federal changes to funding, staffing, and administration of the 2020 Census have led cities like San Antonio to take counting marginalized populations into their own hands.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s announcement in 2017 to offer the survey online, resulting in a cutback of staff administering the survey door-to-door, has caused concern among local organizations that several populations in San Antonio could be left out. In 2020, the census primarily will be administered in an electronic format, according to the Bureau.

Last week, the Office of the City Manager proposed $394,000 from the FY 2019 General Fund go toward the City’s efforts to encourage participation in the 2020 census.

The funds would help form a “Complete Count Committee,” recommended by the U.S. Census Bureau, which would identify populations vulnerable to underrepresentation due to factors such as socioeconomic status, citizenship status, or disability. The funds also would support a census administrator, who would work in the Government and Public Affairs Department to implement census efforts.

“Anytime we [cut back on door-to-door administration] there are special populations that are subject to being missed,” said Melanie Cawthon, the executive director of disABILITYsa, a local nonprofit that provides resources to disabled communities in San Antonio.

Cawthon, who was among the 40-50 participants in attendance at a stakeholder meeting held by the City’s Government and Public Affairs Department last week to strategize solutions for reaching hard-to-count populations, said she attended the meeting based on a realization that much of the federal funding that supports disabled populations hinges on an accurate count.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are more than 200,000 individuals with a disability in San Antonio, according to American Community Survey 2016 data.

“Folks are concerned about the people being left out of the 2020 Census, who could probably benefit the most from being part of the census,” she said.

DisABILITYsa Co-Founder & Executive Director Melanie Cawthon looks proudly at the large amount of booths on display at AccessAbility Fest.
Melanie Cawthon, DisABILITYsa’s co-founder and executive director. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Every 10 years, new census data is used to determine how congressional districts will be drawn. The data also determines how more than $600 billion in federal funding is allocated to states for more than 100 programs such as Medicaid, food vouchers, Head Start programs, Pell Grants, and transportation projects, among others.

Dr. Rogelio Saenz, dean of the college of public policy at UTSA, said the hardest parts of the city to count are often where minorities, low income, and foreign-born populations live.

“In many respects, these are populations that have been marginalized, that are on the edges,” he said. “For decades, we’ve seen that these are the populations that have been under-counted.”

Parts of San Antonio with a high percentage of renters, or people who were living in a different location the previous year, or are not fluent in English, also are subject to being counted inaccurately, according to Saenz.

Following the 2010 decennial census, the Bureau calculated “low response scores” from different communities, which were attributed to various socioeconomic factors, to estimate whether residents would respond to future surveys.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau released a map of its findings, and the portion for Bexar County is shown below.

About 25 percent of Bexar County’s population lives in what is considered “hard-to-count” neighborhoods, according to a recent City University of New York study. Parts of the city’s west, east, and south sides also are at risk according to Saenz.

“We’ll work hand-in-hand with the Census Bureau throughout all of this,” said Megan Dodge, assistant director of government and public affairs at the City of San Antonio who will oversee the execution of a strategy to count marginalized populations.

According to Dodge, members of the Complete Count Committee will be appointed this fall to develop an outreach strategy for 2020.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau is currently hiring staff for a regional office that will be located at 1933 Dollarhide, on the city’s southeast side, though the office does not yet exist, according to Dodge. The Bureau’s office will focus on delivery of the decennial census, which will be held on April 1, 2020, while the City will focus on engaging residents to participate.

“It’s important to San Antonio,” Dodge said. “Everyone needs to be counted.”

Emily Royall is the Rivard Report's former data director.