EDITORIAL: Log in: Time spent self-sheltering useful for filling out census

This March 23, 2018, file photo shows an envelope containing a census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census. (Michelle R. Smith | The Associated Press)

Most people are spending more time at home than they ordinarily do. Surely many people welcome the additional homebound hours, as they offer a chance to catch up on lingering chores around the house, read that book or watch movies or programs that have been on the wish list for a while.

It’s also a good time for those who haven’t filled out their census forms to do so.

All U.S. households should have received their census forms weeks ago, or at least a mailing that provides instructions on how to fill them out online. The process is easy and should take fewer than 10 minutes.

Despite concerns and even threats that the questionnaires would contain questions regarding country of origin and immigration status, such questions aren’t on the final form; the Supreme Court refused to allow their inclusion.

However, the data that are collected have a significant effect on everyone’s lives.

The numbers determine the allocation of nearly $700 billion in federal funds through some 100 accounts. They range from Medicaid to school lunch programs, from highway funding to community block grants. Those allocations are lower if fewer people are counted.

The number of people in this country, and where they live, also determines the distribution of representatives in Congress and the state legislature. Even county and city districts are redrawn in order to give each commissioner a relatively equal number of constituents, and thus rendering each person’s vote equal.

Even with the steady growth of the Rio Grande Valley’s population in recent decades, our officials generally agree that representation, and funding, have been lower than they should be because many people have not participated in past census evaluations, and thus weren’t counted.

Undercounts are particularly severe in South Texas. Responses are lower than normal in rural areas such as those outside of the Valley’s incorporated cities. Another factor is our high number of immigrants, who might fear that their responses could be taken by immigration officials and used against them — fears that officials insist are unfounded.

Federal officials are aware of the undercounts, and traditionally recruit people to go out and count homeless people as well as visit addresses for which questionnaires weren’t received. Travel restrictions in response to the pandemic have prevented those people from going out. Worse, lingering fears of catching the coronavirus could reduce number of people willing to conduct such neighborhood sweeps. This makes voluntary participation even more important this year.

The Rio Grande Valley has been behind the curve in many ways that have affected the region and its economic development. At the time of the last census, the nearest medical school was some 300 miles away, and this was the last major metropolitan area without an interstate highway. The census is part of that lag, as funding is determined by population numbers and because a full count could bring more representatives who will fight for our needs.

We have much to gain from accurate census numbers — and much to lose from an undercount. If you haven’t been counted yet, go to census.gov and fill out the form as soon as possible.