Bastrop County is among a slew of fast-growing rural counties in Central Texas struggling to make sure their residents are counted accurately during this year’s census, set to begin this spring.
Every 10 years, per the U.S. Constitution, every person living in the U.S. has to be counted. The count helps the federal government decide how much money to give each state for various federal programs. It also determines how many seats individual states get in Congress.
Making sure the count is accurate is a big undertaking for any city or county. But it’s especially difficult for local governments that don’t have that many resources to begin with.
“We will work with what we’ve got,” Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said.
Unlike large swaths of rural America that have seen their populations plummet in the past few decades, Bastrop County has been steadily growing. And this rural county directly east of Austin is likely to keep growing.
“As far as rural counties go, Bastrop is right at the head of the list on fast growing,” Pape said. “And the projections are these: In the next 10 years, we are projected to grow another 25% or so. In the next 50 years, we are projected to grow about 400%. Because Austin is pretty much filled up.”
That's why Pape is among a small group of local leaders who have spent the past year doing everything they can to prepare for the census. Among other things, the county has convened a complete count committee, a group of nonprofits and local government officials working exclusively to make sure the population is counted accurately.
Historically, rural counties like Bastrop have had communities undercounted because they're harder to get to compared to communities in larger cities. The Latino population, which Pape said is growing in Bastrop, is also historically undercounted.
Even the slightest undercount could cost lots of money for vital services in the decade to come.
“We have a little saying that we want to have ‘no gaps and no overlaps,’” Pape said. “So we want everyone counted once, but not more than once. And we want to know where they live.”
But getting to those historically undercounted areas takes planning and money, something Texas lawmakers decided not to prioritize.
The Legislature had an opportunity last year to allocate money for the census, taking some financial pressure off local governments. California, for example, set aside almost $200 million to help make sure the count there is accurate.
State Rep. Cesar Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso, said he tried to convince other lawmakers to spend just a fraction of that.
“Unfortunately, the bill that I introduced – HB 255 – and the budget rider for $50 million did not receive the type of bipartisan support that we had hoped for,” he said.
The bill didn't even get a hearing.
Blanco said he thinks politics are to blame: “I think Republicans are fearful that a more accurate count disadvantages their party."
He said the state’s growing Latino population, which tends to vote more often for Democrats, is a big threat to Republicans. Next year, lawmakers will begin drawing political boundaries, and they'll use census information to figure out where the lines should be drawn.
That’s why there have been ongoing efforts to dissuade Latinos from participating in the census, Blanco said.
“There was an attempt to add a citizenship question to the census, which was politically motivated from the very start,” he said. Advocates had argued it would discourage immigrant families from responding.
Republican leaders in the Texas House, including Dade Phelan – who chaired the committee Blanco’s bill was referred to – and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen did not respond to requests for comment.
Blanco said the political stakes of the census became clearer in Texas following reports about documents from Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller.
Hofeller was known for gerrymandering political districts nationwide in favor of Republicans. After his death in 2018, his estranged daughter released some of his old documents to the public. Among them was a study of how a citizenship question in the census could affect Texas House elections, specifically.
Hofeller found drawing districts based on just U.S. citizens – and not the total population – would be “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites." In short, he concluded, not funding an accurate census would aid the Republican Party’s political survival in Texas.
But Pape, who is Republican, said lawmakers made a mistake and ultimately set the state up for an undercount. According to estimates from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a mere 1% undercount could cost Texas $300 million in federal funding each year.
Pape said the state is at risk of being short on cash for important programs for the next decade.
“People are coming to Texas – a thousand people every day are coming to Texas and settling here for jobs because our taxes are low and our air is clean … all these things we brag about,” he said. “Well, if that’s the case then why aren’t we counting them all?”
Mariana Salazar, who is working on the census for the United Way for Greater Austin, said the issue is facing Hays, Caldwell and Williamson counties, as well.
Salazar said local leaders in these smaller communities have had to figure out how to provide services to a growing population that can’t afford to live in Austin.
“They are living and breathing what it means to have very limited resources, and they know that an undercut could translate to a cut in programs,” she said, “and that would be exactly the opposite of what we would want.”
For example, she says, undercounting a community means it might not get a local hospital built or needed road improvements.
Salazar said that’s why the United Way has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on funding local groups working on the census in the five-county area in and around Austin.
Pape said Bastrop has countless needs, including more primary care providers, bus stops and school lunches. He says if people aren't counted in their communities, they won't get funding for those services.
Ahead of the last few census counts, both Republican and Democratic Texas governors convened a statewide committee focused on making sure all communities were counted. Advocates and others say Gov. Greg Abbott could issue an executive order at any time that would create a commission for the census. Time, however, has almost run out.
“That water is already passed under the bridge,” Pape said “It would have been nice if the state leadership had recognized that local governments needed some support, but we will make it work.”
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