The Importance of the Census in COVID’s America

The Importance of the Census in COVID’s America

Blog Post
Thursday, May 21, 2020

Via Understanding Houston, a collaborative initiative led by the Greater Houston Community Foundation

Back in October when the world was blissfully ignorant of something called “COVID-19,” Understanding Houston featured a blog on the importance of the 2020 Census from Frances Valdez, Executive Director of Houston in Action. In her blog, Ms. Valdez highlights the importance of counting each individual living in the region and explains the challenges associated with this endeavor. 

But since then, much has changed. Ensuring a complete population count, an elaborate process under the best of circumstances, is made even more challenging by the ongoing global pandemic. At the same time, the emergence of COVID-19 is itself a bold reminder of the importance of the census.

In no uncertain terms, when we undercount our population in the census, we leave much-needed money on the table. Learn how these missing funds could impact our region, why some groups are more difficult to count than others, and find out what you can do to be counted and support others working to ensure we all count

The impact of the census in Houston

The U.S. Constitution mandates a count of its citizens every decade, the results of which determine the number of seats states get in the House of Representatives, inform the division of congressional and state legislative districts, and allocate hundreds of billions of federal dollars every year to states and municipalities for schools, hospitals, roads, and more. 

About 300 federal programs like Head Start, Medicaid, Community Development Block Grants, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) use census-derived figures to allocate more than $800 billion a year to states.1

A recent report from the Greater Houston Partnership found the results of the 2010 Census directed:

  • $101.6 billion toward federally funded programs to Texas governments (state and local), businesses, nonprofits, hospitals, and households.
  • More than $346 million (nearly 25% of all census-guided education funds to Texas) to the Greater Houston region.
  • More than 25% of the state’s share of funds from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to the Gulf Coast region. WIOA is designed to help job seekers access employment, education, training and support services to find jobs, and to match employers with trained workers.

Census data also play a crucial role in emergency response and recovery efforts in times of disaster, such as Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic. The data helps planners prepare for possible risk scenarios and informs where the federal government should allocate resources in an emergency.

Given that billions of dollars are allocated based on statistics from the census, an undercount leaves millions of critical dollars on the table. The George Washington Institute of Public Policy found that a one percent undercount would cost Texas $292 million in one year alone — more than any other state.2 Over the course of a decade, that totals nearly $3 trillion dollars that Texas could have used for critical services like Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Title IV-E Foster Care, Title IV-E Adoption Assistance, and the Child Care and Development Fund. Three trillion dollars is most certainly a low-ball estimate as funds devoted to these five programs typically make up half of the total amount states get from the federal government.

Hard-to-count Houston-area populations in the 2020 census

Correctly counting 330 million people over 3.5 million square miles is no small feat.3 The Census Bureau employs special methods to evaluate the accuracy of the final census figures which reveal some groups are harder to count than others. For example, the Bureau estimates a 4.88% undercount for American Indian and Alaskan Native populations living on reservations, a 2.03% undercount among African Americans/Blacks, and 1.54% undercount among Hispanics/Latinos.

Historically, populations hardest to count include people of color, immigrants and refugees, children under the age of five, people experiencing homelessness, college students, the LGBTQ+ community, renters, and those living in complex households (e.g., multiple families or unrelated individuals living together).

States and communities with a larger presence of hard-to-count groups are more likely to experience a larger undercount in general, particularly when groups intersect (for example, young children of immigrant families of color). 

Both Texas and Houston have a larger share of young people, immigrants and non-Whites than the nation. Most notably, Fort Bend County’s population under five years old has doubled  — significantly higher than growth in any other county, the state and the nation. Nearly one out of four residents was born outside the U.S. Two-thirds of our region is non-White compared to 40% of the U.S.

The Center for Urban Research estimates that one in four Texans belongs to a hard-to-count population, and approximately 21% of the  population in Houston’s three largest counties (1.2 million people) lives in hard-to-count neighborhoods (defined as areas where the self-response rate was less than 74% in 2010). 

In Fort Bend County, 100% of residents of Kendleton, Orchard, and Fifth Street live in census tracts with sub-standard response rates. Webster and Spring are hard-to-count communities in Harris County, and 89% of residents live in hard-to-count tracts in rural Cut and Shoot, Montgomery County. Explore the hardest-to-count communities using this interactive map from the Center for Urban Research at City University of New York.

Compounding complications to an accurate count in our region, many Houston-area residents are still displaced after Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda. The Urban Institute estimates the population of Texas could be undercounted by anywhere between 228,600 and 576,900 people.

Accurately counting these hard-to-count communities requires additional investment. During the 2019 legislative session, Texas policy makers neglected to dedicate funds toward an accurate census count, in contrast with states like California, which has invested $187 million in ensuring a complete count. Instead, Harris County and the City of Houston have spent $5.1 million from their own budgets toward local census outreach and communication efforts. Houston In Action has been leading community-level outreach with an eye toward “cultural competency,” attempting to meet hard-to-count groups where they live, work, and play. Since the emergence of COVID-19 has required most of us to live, work, and play at home, outreach efforts have been delayed and redesigned, exacerbating challenges to a complete count, especially among historically hard-to-count groups.

Texas and the Houston region’s census self-response rates

Given the number of hard-to-count populations in our region, coupled with the state’s lack of investment in census outreach, it’s not surprising that Texas historically trails the country in taking initiative to respond to the census.4  In the 2010 census, the national self-response rate was 66.5%, compared to 64.4% among Texans. Texas, the second most populous state, ranked 34th among states on this measure.

Harris County — the third most populous county in the nation — doesn’t do much better than the state. Not quite two-thirds of households in Harris County responded to the 2010 census, placing Harris 15th among the 25 most populous counties in the nation in census response rates. Conversely, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties are high performers. In 2010, Fort Bend County had the second-highest response rate in the state at 72.1%. Montgomery County ranked 17th at 67.5%. For comparison, Harris County was 38th in Texas.

History is repeating itself as Texas continues to lag behind the overall national response to the ongoing 2020 census, ranking 38 among states at time of publication. As of May 9, the national response rate was 58.5% while Texas lags at 53.1%. Among the three-county Greater Houston area, Harris County trails with a response rate of only 52.6% while 65.0% of Fort Bend households have completed the census.

How you can help Houston count

An accurate census count is incredibly important for our communities, and being counted can be surprisingly simple. Help by completing the census if you have not already. For most, the process takes about 10 minutes and can be completed online, by phone, or through the mail. Details below. Also, please consider supporting Houston in Action’s census outreach efforts in a variety of ways.

  • Online: Visit to fill out the census questionnaire.This is the only website you should use to answer census questions. 
  • By phone: For English speakers, dial 844-330-2020, and for Spanish speakers, dial 844-468-2020. The Bureau also offers 11 other languages. For a full list of phone numbers by language, visit The phone lines are open every day from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. Central Time.
  • By mail: Most households should have received their invitation to respond to the 2020 Census as of March 20. The invitation contains information on how to respond and a Census ID for completing the census online. Homes in areas that are less likely to respond online will eventually receive a paper questionnaire.

The Census Bureau will never ask for a Social Security number, bank or credit card account numbers, money or donations, or anything on behalf of a political party. In 2020, it also will not ask for citizenship status; all U.S. residents regardless of immigration status may fill out the census.

Deadline: While the deadline to complete the census has been extended to October 31, 2020, why wait? Do it now. April 1 is considered Census Day, as this is the day for which we complete the survey for all people living at your residence on that day.

If you’ve already completed the Census, there are still ways you can help the Houston region be counted. 

  • Houston in Action has assembled a Census Toolkit featuring a suite of free resources designed to connect vulnerable and hard-to-count populations with the information they need to complete the 2020 census. 
  • The City of Houston offers a variety of free-to-share materials you can use to help educate friends, neighbors, and loved ones about the importance of the census — including email templates, social media graphics, children’s materials, and more — in six of our region’s most common languages.

The months and years following the COVID-19 pandemic will bring many new and unique challenges to our region. Don’t let Houston leave critically-needed money on the table. Be counted. Spread the word to your friends and neighbors. Let’s count all of Houston together.

End Notes:

1 Learn more about how the federal government distributes funds here.
2 An analysis of five major programs administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that comprise about 48% of funds states receive from the federal government. Visit GWIPP for more details on methodology.
3 First, households complete the census on their own (either online, by phone, or via mail). If, after multiple reminders, the household has not responded, a census taker makes a house call to collect responses in-person. As a last resort, the Bureau derives estimates using administrative records from the Internal Revenue Service or Social Security. Learn more about how the Census Bureau counts difficult-to-reach populations here.
4 Self-response rates are different from final response rates. Self-response includes those who respond on their own initiative online, by phone, or via mail. Final response rates include responses received in-person as a result of households being unresponsive.

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