Fort Worth

Census Prompts Distrust in Fort Worth Neighborhood

us census
NBC Connecticut

Cristina Otera, 59, has never filled out the U.S. census survey even though she's lived at the same yellow corner house where she raised her children and now grandchildren for more than two decades.

Otera lives in the United Riverside neighborhood two miles east of downtown Fort Worth, on the other side of the Trinity River and south of Airport Freeway. This area is one of the hardest to count in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2010, less than 60% of the households in the area returned their census by mail, forcing enumerators to visit the neighborhood to fill out the questionnaire in person. United Riverside is also at a high risk for the undercount of young children for the 2020 Census, according to the bureau and the Center for Urban Research at City University of New York.

Every year, $675 billion in federal funding for transportation, food stamps, school lunches and children's health insurance are allocated nationwide using census data from local communities. So an undercount means those communities might not get as much as they need and local taxpayers and nonprofits end up making up the difference, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

In 2016 alone, Texas received more than $59 billion through 55 federal spending programs guided by data derived from the 2010 census, according to a 2019 George Washington University study.

To curb this risk, the bureau began sending postcards in February inviting people to respond online, by phone or by mail. The paper questionnaire will arrive at most households between March 12-20 and with instructions in English and 12 other languages.

The bureau also plans to begin a campaign dubbed Statistics in Schools to help teach children about the census in hopes they'll influence their parents and take additional educational materials home.

Otera said she didn't receive anything in the mail in 2010, and no one from the bureau came to her house. She said if she gets it this year, she probably would not fill it out.

"Because it doesn't affect me," Otero said in Spanish. "It's all politics, and I don't like to get involved in things like that."

The census, which is mandated by the U.S. Constitution, does affect politics. Every 10 years it determines how the 435 seats of the United States House of Representatives are distributed among the 50 states. Texas stands to gain up to three seats in Congress. The 2020 census will also be used to re-draw district maps and help shape the creation of two new city council districts in Fort Worth.

But what Otero did not know was that the free school lunches her grandchildren receive at Versia L. Williams elementary, located directly across the street from her home, are also affected by the census.

"That's why it's so important to get the count right," said Karen Molinar, who is the link between the Fort Worth school district and the bureau's efforts to educate the public about the importance of filling out the census. "If we don't, that money, it goes somewhere else, and we end up stretched thin and struggling to find other means to make it up."

Nationwide, an estimated 1 million children under 5 were not counted in 2010, the highest of any age group, according to the bureau.

Texas ranked No. 1, with 102,406 children under 5 who were not counted, followed by California with 101,854 and Florida with 71,307, according to a publication from the Count All Kids Committee, made up of national, state and local children's organizations across the U.S. Because of the undercount, Texas has lost almost $119 million a year since 2010 for federally funded health, safety and well-being support for children and families.

In Tarrant County, 6,800, or 4%, of children under 5 were missed, according to a census data analysis by the Fort Worth Star Telegram. In 2016, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials found 4,000 of the county's children who were missed were Latino.

Children in households like Otera's, where a child is cared for during the day while his parents work, are likely not to be counted. Children who live with a single parent or in a home with several generations or families are also at risk of being missed, according to the bureau.

Because of these challenges and the federal money tied to population, California state leaders set aside $187.2 million toward community outreach and media campaigns to reach hard-to-count areas, more than any other state. Texas lawmakers did not budget any money toward census efforts, leaving it up to the bureau and the cities to ensure an accurate count.

In January 2019, Arlington set aside $30,000 toward census outreach efforts and started a monthly complete count committee. In April, Fort Worth announced its own outreach committee targeting schools, government, churches, businesses, the media and community organizations.

Molinar heads the education subcommittee and is also the chief of staff for the Fort Worth school district's Policy and Planning Department. Molinar started at the district as a first-grade teacher more than 20 years ago and is confident if parents hear from teachers about the importance of filling out the census, they will be more willing to participate.

"We've built a relationship with our families by meeting them where they are," Molinar said. "It has taken years to build that trust."

In March 2019, President Donald Trump's administration decided to add a question on citizenship status to the 2020 census. More than two dozen states and cities sued the administration, arguing the change would violate the Constitution and cause fewer people to be counted.

The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the question in June, a month after evidence from a deceased GOP strategist emerged that the Trump administration wanted to add the question to help the Republican Party skew political boundaries to their advantage when redistricting begins in 2021, according to a report by the New York Times.

Mireya Flores, 45, whose 6-year-old daughter, Miriam, and 6-year-old niece, Anali Espinoza, also attend Versia L. Williams Elementary, said she did not know the question had been thrown out.

"I have family members that don't have any papers," Flores said, referring to the immigration status of several relatives living in her household. "I don't trust that they are not going to use it against us."

Title 13 of the U.S. Code requires that responses to Census Bureau surveys be kept confidential and used for statistical purposes only. Unlawful disclosure is a federal crime punishable by a $250,000 fine or five years in prison, or both, according to the census website.

A colorful flier children nationwide will receive from school states: "The Census Bureau will never share information with immigration enforcement agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), law enforcement agencies like the police or Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), or allow this information to be used to determine eligibility for government benefits."

The Census Bureau is spending $50 million on ads targeting Latinos to help combat the scare over the citizenship question, Politco reported in February.

Javier Valles, 28, said he hears the ads every day on the Spanish language radio stations explaining why it's important to fill out the census, but did not know how the survey affects his everyday life.

Valles owns a powder coating company in Fort Worth and drives a Cadillac XTS with 20-inch chrome rims. He said the streets of United Riverside are safe and everyone knows each other, the only problem is the potholes.

"I've had to realign my car like three times since I bought it," said Valles. "It would be great if they could fix the roads."

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation allocated some $3.3 billion to Texas through the Highway Planning and Construction program, the fifth-largest amount of federal assistance based on census data.

In 2016, 325 census-guided federal spending programs distributed more than $900 billion to state and local governments, nonprofits, businesses, and households across the U.S., according to a study by Andrew Reamer, a research professor at George Washington University.

Texas received more than $59 billion through these federal grants. Despite being the second-most populous state, it still ranked 43rd among states in federal grants received per resident in 2016, according to the state comptroller's office.

"The census affects everybody," said Mirgitt Crespo, executive director of federal programs at the Fort Worth school district. "If people in these communities that are in need don't fill it out, some other community gets it, and we're left taking money from the state, local taxpayers or nonprofits to make it up."

Everyone living in the U.S. is required by law to be counted by the 2020 census. The official census day is April 1.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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