For three years, a large coalition in Hidalgo County planned to get out in the community for the 2020 Census.
There were events planned across the community. Plans were made to get out into the community in person to make sure people got counted. The U.S. Census Bureau even opened its first office in Hidalgo County, rather than rely on the San Antonio Regional Office.
Then the unexpected happened: a pandemic.
“The health crisis has made a lot of stuff we planned for not an option anymore,” Nestor Lopez, an economic development analyst with Hidalgo County who has been spearheading outreach efforts.
Lopez is referring to COVID-19, a virus that’s taken root all across the Rio Grande Valley prompting emergency orders from local governments that include shelter-in-place orders and curfews.
The U.S. Census Bureau itself has suspended field operations.
And in an unfortunate manner of timing, the census mailers which were sent between March 12 and 20 coincided with the beginning of the spread — and the emergency orders — in Hidalgo County.
In response, the U.S. Census Bureau has been urging residents across the country to fill out the census online on computers or through smartphones, but for Hidalgo County that poses a problem.
“We are very large geographically and we felt a lot of the in-person campaigns would be more useful. That is what we prepared for,” Lopez said. “That may be one of the many reasons we are lagging behind.”
And the numbers are concerning.
The U.S. response rate, as of Tuesday was 45.7% while Texas’ response rate sat at 41.7%
Hidalgo County averages out at 28.8% with the lowest response rate originating in La Villa at just 3% while the highest in the region is McAllen at 34.7%.
“So we are well below the national average and the state average,” Lopez said.
In some part of the counties, response rates are particularly dire.
Take La Villa, Elsa and Edcouch, all of which sit below 5% response rates.
Lopez believes the response rates in these cities are so low because they rely on PO boxes as opposed to mail boxes.
“What (the Census Bureau) would tell us is we can’t deliver to PO boxes,” Lopez said.
That’s because a PO Box can’t be tied to a fixed address. So people living in Elsa, La Villa and Edcouch did not receive the mailers, Lopez said. And since field operations are suspended, no one has knocked on anyone’s door to get them to fill out the census.
But that doesn’t mean residents in this trio of cities can’t fill out the census, Lopez said.
Residents can log into 2020census.gov and complete the census. There are just a few extra steps, Lopez said.
“We need to see how we can get this message out to these smaller cities and, really, this mail delivery is just one of a couple of issues … that’s piling on,” Lopez said.
While larger urban areas across the country may have solid internet connections, this is not the case for rural Hidalgo County.
“We have a very large rural population, a 1/4 to a 1/3 is in the rural area,” Lopez said. “So anywhere north of 200,000 people are in the rural area and a lot of these people don’t have connectivity and if they do, it’s poor.”
Again, that’s why officials planned events and relied on getting out into the rural communities.
And given how much relies on an accurate count — funding for everything from education to health care as well as representation in government — Lopez admits he is apprehensive.
“Well, and I completely understand and to be completely fair the Census Bureau has been fantastic (in its communication with the county),” Lopez said. “However, it is a little discomforting that they themselves aren’t exactly sure how this is going to develop.”
The response deadline has been postponed to Aug. 14, but Lopez believes that date should be farther out to ensure an accurate count in Hidalgo County, which is historically undercounted.
“We are leaning on all of our partners, if you are at home, working from home, this is your chance to really complete the census,” Lopez said.
However, if April 30 comes around, the day the current emergency order is set to expire, Lopez said the coalition of groups who have been working on the census for the last three years are mobilized and will be ready to go.
“We are ready to go but even if that does not happen and we are forced to continue to do what we’re doing now, they have been great at sharing messages to corresponding jurisdictions and groups,” Lopez said. “This is entirely different than what we have planned.”
At least the message is simple: fill out the census because essential funding for the region depends on it, Lopez said.
For more information on the census, visit 2020census.gov.
Here are response rates to the Census as of April 6
>> Starr County – 19.1%
>> Hidalgo County – 28.2%
>> Cameron County – 28.1 %
>> La Villa – 3%
>> Elsa – 4.3%
>> Edcouch – 4.7%
>> Progreso – 7%
>> Sullivan City – 10.3%
>> Peñitas – 21%
>> Palmview – 21%
>> Granjeño – 21.4%
>> Alamo – 23.4%
>> Hidalgo – 24%
>> Palmhurst – 25.2%
>> Pharr – 26.5%
>> Alton – 28%
>> Donna – 29.5%
>> San Juan – 30.9%
>> Weslaco – 30.6%
>> Mercedes – 30.7%
>> Mission – 33.5%
>> Edinburg – 34.1%
>> McAllen – 34.7%
(Source: Hidalgo County)