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Census Continues Struggle With Low Response Rates Across Far West Texas

By Ari Snider

Most of Far West Texas continues to lag well behind the rest of the state in responding to the US Census — the once-per-decade headcount that determines political representation and guides the flow of government funding.

In the tri-county area, response rates range from 20% to a little over 30%, compared to an average of 57% across the state.

There are a number of factors that make Far West Texas a difficult place to count, including the geographic remoteness of many households and a lack of street delivery mail service in many communities. Usually, the Census uses field workers to try to make up for these challenges by sending them out to deliver forms and collect responses, but those efforts were paused as the coronavirus spread. 

The pandemic has also made it harder to connect with residents in group settings. 

“We had plans for lots of gatherings and events,” says Peggy O’Brien, who’s leading Census response efforts through the Rio Grande Council of Governments. “Which of course have been cancelled.” 

O’Brien says they have had success distributing Census packets through schools, for parents to come and pick up.  

Figuring out alternative strategies on-the-fly has become the norm this year as officials conduct a Census under historically challenging circumstances. According to Charlene McBride, a Senior Partnership Special for West Texas with the Census Bureau, everyone involved in the operation has had to get creative.  

“We’re trying to think out of the box,” McBride says. “That’s what I keep telling my team, is that we need to think out of the box in order to go ahead and get out the message and assist individuals.” 

To that end, the Census has been reaching people at food banks, many of which are serving far more people than usual as the pandemic’s economic fallout ripples across the nation. They are also pushing social media campaigns. 

Though, the pandemic didn’t stop all field operations, and earlier this summer Census workers fanned out across the region to hand-deliver response packets to each household. O’Brien, with the Rio Grande Council of Governments, says getting those forms out has helped a bit. 

Although response rates are still comparatively low to the rest of the state, McBride feels optimistic now that packets have gone out. 

“We have been seeing some increase in the response rates due to everyone having received a Census questionnaire,” she says. “[The numbers] are looking very promising.” 

McBride says some of the areas of concern within the Big Bend are Terlingua, Presidio, and the more rural stretches of Jeff Davis County. 

To reach those areas, McBride says the Census is planning to send workers out to knock on doors in September to try to count everyone before the October 31st deadline. McBride says workers will wear masks and take other safety precautions. She also says there’s a simple way for residents to avoid getting a knock on the door:  

“The biggest thing we keep telling people is, ‘Please respond, either sending back your questionnaire by mail, calling, or going online,’” she said.