Civic and government leaders in Galveston are right to be concerned about the low census response rate among island residents.
Anybody who pays taxes or relies on public assets such as roads and schools, which is all of us, also should be concerned.
Everybody interested in this area being equitably represented in the U.S. Congress, which is all of us, should be concerned.
People who care about economic development should be concerned because businesses use census data to decide where they will invest, operate and create jobs.
Because of that, we should all do what we can to improve the city’s response rate.
With a little more than a month of counting left, only 42 percent of households in Galveston have responded to the U.S. Census, a rate lagging behind the state and county.
For example, 67.8 percent of households in League City and 55.8 percent in Texas City have responded.
About 59 percent of Texans have responded to the census, and 56.5 percent of Galveston County residents have responded.
As The Daily News reported last week, the relatively low response rate has Galveston leaders worried about a substantial undercount of the city’s population, especially among Hispanic and young people.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Galveston’s population at 50,446 people, back to near where it was before the battering from Hurricane Ike in 2008.
About 30 percent of the island’s almost 50,000 population is Hispanic or Latino, and 31 percent is in the 20s and 30s age groups, according to census data.
Galveston could easily miss the 50,000-resident threshold if fewer than half of households stand up to be counted.
The ramifications of missing that number would be profound and enduring.
Estimates aside, whatever the official count turns out to be, no matter how off it is, Galveston could be stuck with that number for the next 10 years.
One of the most significant areas that receives funding is the Island Transit system, which is critical for service industry workers to get around the city, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
The city still is receiving public transit funding — $1.7 million last year — but another decade of fewer than 50,000 people on record would mean a loss of that money, Maxwell said.
That could mean the end of Island Transit in Galveston, he said.
“The group that we’re talking about that’s underrepresented in the census, they’re more likely to use public transit,” Maxwell said. “There’s a lot of legislation that’s bracketed based on population.”
The city also relies on population counts to secure state funding for roads, disaster relief and community development grants, which help low-income people, Maxwell said.
Part of what’s setting Galveston up for a serious undercount is fear among undocumented residents and even some citizens that the information will be used to alert immigration authorities.
That fear was exacerbated this year by debate about including a question about citizenship status on the census form, which in past years has asked about countries of origin but not legal status.
That question wasn’t added, but the heightened concern remains, said Robert Quintero, chairman of the city’s 2020 Census Complete Count Committee.
“There’s a fear,” Quintero said. “They do not trust a lot of what’s going on right now.”
Asking foreign-born residents to state their citizenship status isn’t a heinous thing to do. All countries have a legitimate interest in managing immigration. Given the toxicity of that debate in this country, however, even talking about posing the question was counter-productive.
Meanwhile, officials say the fear is unfounded because the Census Bureau isn’t allowed to share the information, said Terry Bennett, spokeswoman for the Houston area U.S. Census Bureau.
“We were sworn and took an oath to protect all information,” Bennett said.
Undocumented residents and citizens hosting them should truthfully answer the census. To do otherwise means the number of people using roads and schools and all other public assets will be underestimated.
Young people should do so for the same reason.
Some people have criticized the argument that a good census count is necessary to ensure the city receives federal funding, as if it were a matter of maximizing our share of the government dole. That argument misses the point.
Federal money is collected from local people through taxes. The question is whether those local people will get a reasonable return on that investment.
Texas residents get back about $1.50 on every $1 they pay in federal taxes, according to a report in The Atlantic. Not bad, just objectively, but middle of the pack relative to many other states. South Carolina residents, for example, get almost $8, North Dakota $5.50 and Florida $4.50, to name the top three.
The census count is not about getting something for nothing; it’s about getting our fair share.
• Michael A. Smith