Census countdown

Tiny areas called tracts have out-sized impact

WESLACO — Drilling down by state, to county, to city to neighborhood, the smallest and most important piece of real estate in determining an accurate U.S. Census count is the lowly census tract.

The optimal size of these small population pockets is 4,000 people, and the maximum is 8,000.

Wherever possible, census administrators attempt to keep these tracts intact so the data collected can be compared like-to-like from one decennial census to the next.

But human beings are a restless lot, and population movement and especially growth, such as the Rio Grande Valley is experiencing, mean these tracts must be analyzed and possibly re-drawn every 10 years.

“There are some programs that are targeted for census tracts that are in poverty, so there are things like opportunity zones or enterprise zones,” said Ron Garza, executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Development Council. “Also, from an economic development standpoint, that drills down to the census tract. Usually these are not decreasing, it’s usually increasing.

“If you increase the census tract well beyond the threshold that’s optimal, 8,000, you’re not creating enough identification of those areas that need certain services, that’s what it boils down to,” he added.

Speaking at the council’s board meeting here last week, Garza said these technical aspects of Census 2020 are critical in ensuring the best available data for the Rio Grande Valley is captured. Many experts insist the region is chronically undercounted, and that means the loss of potentially hundreds of million — even billions — of federal program dollars over a 10-year period until the next census.

He said the LRGVDC’s departments, which range from Economic Development to Community and Environmental Services to Health and Human Services to Public Safety, are contributing to an effort to simplify and clean up any problem tracts.

“I know the City of McAllen, the City of Brownsville probably have the most that have grown beyond the (8,000) limit, but other cities do as well, I think Harlingen has a few,” Garza said. “But we’re going to analyze that data, review it, approve it.”

Garza said all the data collected on the census tracts, including revisions to boundaries, has been sent to city officials to look over the new tracts and weigh in on whether any splits creating new tracts are justified.

“If there’s a split, do they agree with the split? They might not,” Garza said. “For whatever reason, it might not be accurately done. They have the ability to revise that.

“The Census Bureau has told us that as long as we have all the justification and the data to support that, most likely they’re going to go with our local recommendations,” he added.

What’s a census tract?

Census tracts are small, relatively permanent statistical subdivisions of a county or equivalent entity that are updated by local participants prior to each decennial census.

Census tracts generally have a population size between 1,200 and 8,000 people, with an optimum size of 4,000 people. A census tract usually covers a contiguous area; however, the spatial size of census tracts varies widely depending on the density of population.

Census tract boundaries are laid out with the intention of being maintained over a long time so statistical comparisons can be made from census to census. Census tracts occasionally are split due to population growth or merged as a result of substantial population decline.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau