Despite Disaster, Austin Leveled Up in the 2020 Census

Austin-Travis County was the only city-county pair in Texas to beat its 2010 census response rate

John Lawler (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Despite a pandemic, a meddling president, and anti-immigrant maneuvering casting shadows over the 2020 census, Austin and Travis County showed up and got counted. On June 8, the city-county 2020 census team reported its good news to the Commissioners Court: Austin-Travis County was the only city-county pair in Texas to surpass its own census participation in 2010, with a self-response rate of 67.3%, just behind El Paso in the 2020 standings.*

Texas as a whole did not do so well, placing a mediocre 39th in self-response rate for 2020, which likely cost the state an expected third new seat in Congress. Self-response is the most meaningful metric for census completeness (gaps are closed by "non­-response follow-up" with neighbors or landlords by Census Bureau workers), and the stakes are high: Each person uncounted is estimated to deprive Austin and Travis County of $1,500 in federal funding, as well as representation when new districts for local, state, and federal offices are drawn. (Detailed 2020 data is yet to come; the redistricting numbers are set to be released Aug. 16.)

“We tried to start at the bottom; inch-wide, mile-deep, vs. mile-wide, inch-deep organizing, right? Try to find those universal things by first establishing what the individual strategies were for each community.” – John Lawler, census program manager for Austin-Travis County

That's why motivating people in "hard-to-count" communities is important; the city-county effort was buoyed by local Asian American, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, and LGBTQIA+ complete count committees. Reasons for census reluctance are manifold and often justified, says Neal Whetstone, head of the Black/African American CCC: "You know, government participation has often led to all types of redlining, in virtually every industry. You figure out where the Black people are to figure out where or where not to build certain things." When encountering hesitation, "rather than just saying, 'Oh, no, no,' we're like, 'This is the history of the census. We can't guarantee that the government isn't going to do certain things with this information; however, it is your constitutional right to participate in this.'"

Alice Yi of the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association, who led that community's CCC, says Asian Americans (projected to become the largest immigrant group in the U.S. by midcentury) also have mistrust of the government, on top of language barriers. The threat of a census question on citizenship didn't help: It "really locked out our community's interest," she says, as many are refugees and undocumented. Yi adds that those who have arrived within the last 10 years (the Asian American population has grown 81% since 2000) may not realize the census is a routine event every decade, which could stoke even more suspicion.

The pandemic stymied in-person canvassing that CCC leaders agree is vital. "There was a time where we just stopped altogether," Whetstone says. "It just didn't seem appropriate to [do] a lot of in-person activity." Despite such roadblocks, John Lawler, the census program manager for Austin-Travis County, attributes its success to collaboration between institutional partners and CCCs with existing grassroots connections: "We tried to start at the bottom; inch-wide, mile-deep vs. mile-wide, inch-deep organizing, right? Try to find those universal things by first establishing what the individual strategies were for each community."

Those included handing out info at trusted grocery stores, and restaurants like Roland's and Big Easy Bar & Grill – a way to "be sincere with our outreach," says Whetstone, while also supporting Black-owned businesses. Each CCC hosted livestreamed events and ran bilingual radio and TV ads (paid for by grants from United Way of Greater Aus­tin). Mosques, temples, and churches were key information centers. One of the most successful ads, says Lawler, featured a local Catholic priest encouraging his congregation in Spanish to take the census. George Morales, head of the Hispanic/Latino CCC, says PPE and food distribution events allowed for outreach while meeting needs across communities; everyone who came seeking relief from COVID's ravages received census info along with hand sanitizer, masks, and food.

"Folks really care that census information impacts how resources are [made] available," Lawler notes. "When you can directly tie their taking the census to the fact that more kids will be able to have a free or reduced lunch, or you'll have better funding for your school ... that really motivated folks."

All involved agree that despite their success, with more funding – including from the state, which chose not to invest in any complete count efforts until a hasty last-minute statewide media blitz – the count could have been higher. In the June 8 presentation, Lawler laid out how local and federal support helped build trust with hard-to-count communities – for example, providing bug spray and bottles of water to the unhoused leading up to the count. Morales and Yi agree their "ground game" would have been stronger if not for COVID. Lawler adds that "there were strains ... due to a lack of infrastructure and connection points between grassroots and institutional organizations" providing relief and outreach.

He aimed to show in his report that work could have gone farther and faster "had a lot of these community-based coalitions already been coordinating" with government and nonprofit agencies as well as with each other. The CCC leaders all sing the praises of collaboration: "I think it gave other people perspective on [the] Black community, our values and culture and outlook," and vice versa, says Whetstone. "It was a lot of racial solidarity." But in 2030, he wants to see a Latina leading the count: "In 2030, we're just going to have more and more nonwhite people ... I think that leadership should reflect the demographic[s]."

In turn, Lawler advocates for ongoing investment in grassroots efforts: "We can't always rely on these folks and put the whole weight on their shoulders. We need to be sure that we support these community-based coalitions every year," says Lawler.

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Travis County was the only urban county in Texas to surpass its own census participation in 2010; in fact, Austin-Travis County was the only city-county pair to beat its 2010 rate. The story has been updated to reflect this correction. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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2020 U.S. Census, John Lawler, Alice Yi, Neal Whetstone, Black / African American Complete Count Committee, Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Assocation, Asian American Complete Count Committee, Queer the Census ATX, George Morales, Hispanic / Latino Complete Count Committee, LGBTQIA Complete Count Committee, U.S. Census Bureau

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