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Dr. Poston and Dr. Sáenz on 2020 Census Undercount

Half-million Texans missed in census count will cost the state billions

Read or listen to Dr. Dudley Poston interview on Texas Public Radio about the 2020 census undercount and its implications for Texas. This interview is based on research by Dr. Dudley Poston and Dr. Rogelio Sáenz, which is also detailed in the San Antonio Express-News Op-Ed below.

We’re all paying Abbott’s census tax

By Dudley L. Poston Jr. and Rogelio Sáenz
June 3, 2022
For the San Antonio Express-News

Demographers and pundits have speculated about the accuracy of Texas’ population in the 2020 census — whether there was an undercount.

There is no more need for conjecture. Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released data from the Post-Enumeration Survey, or PES, indicating the degree of undercount and overcount in the 2020 census. The PES is a survey of the populations of 10,000 sampled blocks; every person living in those blocks is matched back to the 2020 census enumeration. The data from the PES enable the Census Bureau to determine who was missed and who was counted more than once.

The PES data indicated 36 states, along with the District of Columbia, did not have a statistically significant undercount or overcount. But eight states had statistically significant overcounts, and six states, including Texas, had statistically significant undercounts. Joining Texas in the undercount ledger are Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and Tennessee. All these states, with the exception of Illinois, are led by a Republican governor.

It is estimated the Texas population was undercounted by 1.92 percent in the 2020 census, meaning almost 548,000 Texans were missed, a number a little larger than the population of the city of Tucson, Ariz. More people were missed in Texas than in any other state. Almost 1 in every 50 Texans was missed in the 2020 Census. Why?

Starting in 2018, President Donald Trump and his administration attempted to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, and they also tried to exclude undocumented people from the census count. Trump also tried to halt early the actual process of the census enumeration. These efforts sought to discourage Latinos from being counted. These efforts, we believe, worked in Texas.

But why did these exclusionary attempts not have an impact in most other states? Because the governors elsewhere developed in 2018 and 2019 state-level outreach and awareness programs that were focused on counting all the people in their states.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom devoted more than $187 million to a “Be Counted California” campaign, designed to make sure all California residents were counted in the 2020 census. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who leads a state with a population of just more than 5 million people, smaller than the population of the metropolitan area of Houston, devoted several million dollars to an “Alabama Counts, 2020 Census” campaign. According to the new PES data, there were no population undercounts in California or Alabama.

And these are only two examples. For the most part, states that developed complete count campaigns early did not have significant numbers of residents undercounted.

What happened in Texas? Abbott and his Republican colleagues largely opposed state-level funding to get a complete count of the Texas population, perhaps sensing that the hard-to-reach people would be disproportionately those who do not vote Republican.

With just a month from the close of the census, when an estimate of the state’s enumeration looked dismal, Abbott made an 11 ½-hour effort to promote a better census count, chipping in $15 million in CARES Act funds. Abbott contributed 8 cents in funding for every $1 California spent to get a complete count of his state’s population. Abbott got what he sowed. In fact, the outcome would have been worse for Texas were it not for some cities, including San Antonio, investing funds to get an accurate count of their populations.

What are the consequences?

For one, Texas was projected to gain three U.S. congressional seats but received only two new seats. Minnesota received the last seat in the 2020 apportionment of the House. Had 267,000 more Texans been counted, Texas would have received that last seat.

In addition, the undercount of 548,000 Texans will cost the state dearly in an economic sense. Every year the U.S. allocates to the states $1.5 trillion in federal funds, distributed to the states on the basis of their population, for a host of federal programs. Based on its 2010 census count, over the past decade Texas has annually received more than $100 billion in federal funds. We estimate that Texas, owing to its undercount of 548,000 people in the 2020 census, will end up losing more than $19 billion in federal funds between now and 2031.

Texas, its counties and cities will not get the federal funds that should have come their way if everyone had been counted. The state will feel the painful pinch when it comes to education, health care, roads and highways, Medicaid and Medicare, housing support, elderly services, mental health care — the list goes on. Children, adults and older Texans, Republicans and Democrats, those in urban and rural areas will all feel the shortage of funds. But even more gnawing, the $19.18 billion that Texas will lose over the next 10 years does not go back to the U.S. Treasury. Those funds will go to states with more accurate counts — such as California.

Abbott has saddled us — the more than 29.1 million Texans counted in the 2020 census, plus the 548,000 not counted — with a census tax of $19.18 billion over the next 10 years. This means that owing to Abbott’s inactions, every person in Texas will end up paying a $646 census tax.

Abbott has made his own political future and his standing among the far right his priority rather than the Texas people. Abbott is costly to your wallet. Have you paid your share of the Abbott census tax yet?

Dudley L. Poston Jr. is an emeritus professor of sociology at Texas A&M University.

Rogelio Sáenz is a professor of demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Sáenz is a member of the Census Scientific Advisory Committee. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of this committee.