My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

Undercounting in western Texas

There have been worries about undercounting in New York, and it seems to have reached a county in western Texas. Brewster County officials claim that the rural geography makes conventional “urban” census counting pretty useless, which becomes an issue when you count on the census for funding. Still, though accurate enumeration is a neccessity, talk about a challenge – you have 10,000 people over 6000 square miles, people on mountains, and the guys who carry two copies of the Constitution who are personally offended by the census.

From The Houston Chroncle:

W Texas officials complain about census undercount

By JOHN MacCORMACK San Antonio Express-News © 2010 The Associated Press

ALPINE, Texas — Perhaps only in southern Brewster County — where the land is harsh, the libertarian fevers run hot and the missing refinements of civilization are not mourned — could a census worker be mauled by a wild swine kept as a family pet.

“I guess she didn’t know what a javelina was or how territorial they can be. She ended up trapped inside the house and called for help,” Brewster County Judge Val Beard said of the improbable confrontation that occurred in 2000, the last time the feds tried to count people here.

After help arrived at the remote home, it ended badly for the overprotective javelina.

“Arnold was executed by the ambulance driver with a pistol, and then Arnold and the injured census worker were both brought to Alpine in the ambulance. Only in South Brewster County,” said Beard, who complained of an undercount then.

Ten years later, not much has changed. The census workers again are making the rounds of the state’s largest county in blazing heat, often on bad roads in search of dubious addresses. This time, it was a belligerent goat that butted a census worker.

And county officials again are complaining loudly that the census is bungling the count.

“We had a horrible undercount 10 years ago, at least 10 percent, based on utility hookups and anecdotal evidence. And if things don’t turn around, it will happen again in south Brewster County,” Beard said.

“The population is so spread out. We have what amount to giant subdivisions, and the Census Bureau doesn’t understand this. They are still applying normal urban formulas,” she said.

In an attempt to avoid a similar outcome, Brewster County leaders two years ago formed a “Complete Count Committee” that chose an image of a charging Arnold as its mascot emeritus.

It was chaired by Commissioner Kathy Killingsworth, whose district includes Terlingua, and also is superintendent of the Terlingua Common School District.

“All our funding, whether it’s the school or the county, is dependent on the count,” said Killingsworth, who, like Beard, fears an undercount, even after consultations with regional census brass.

“The whole system is flawed. It’s not set up for rural West Texas. The maps are inaccurate. The initial forms were not delivered to a majority of the residents. And now, they simply don’t have enough time and people to get it done,” she said.

With a July 10 deadline looming, the U.S. Census Bureau recently dispatched 65 more workers to Brewster County. They joined the 21 local hires, who since April have been toiling for $12.25 an hour and 50 cents a mile.

“We just want to ensure that we don’t fall behind. We have to get a questionnaire back from every single household,” said Jenna Steormann, a U.S. Census spokeswoman in Dallas.

In the mapping phase that was done last year, Steormann said airplanes and people on horseback were used to inventory out-of-the-way residences in Brewster County. Enumerators using ATVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles are now seeking them out in the back country.

“Brewster County presents different challenges, just getting to the households. We’re trying to do everything in our power to get an accurate count of the community,” Steormann said.

And, she said, it’s too early to talk about possible undercounts.

“The count is not over. The numbers won’t even be released until next year. We’ve done everything in our power to make sure we get an accurate count from that area,” she said.

To say that this remote corner of Texas, which borders Mexico and includes the Big Bend National Park, presents logistical “challenges” would be like saying Arnold the javelina was a bit inhospitable.

For starters, there are only about 10,000 residents spread over more than 6,000 square miles — an area larger than Connecticut, with much of it resembling the landscape of Afghanistan.

And South Brewster County, whose unofficial capital is the Terlingua ghost town, is a place some people come to get lost. It’s a given here that you don’t ask uninvited personal questions of newcomers.

“This is one of the last frontiers of Texas,” said Mike Kasper, a retired rafting guide who thinks the feds are drastically over-reaching their constitutional mandate to simply “enumerate.”

“The census was supposed to be a nonpolitical head count. Anything beyond that is meddling,” he said.

“I’m a patriot. I carry two copies of the Constitution with me wherever I go. Those who do not know their rights, have no rights,” he said.

Although Brewster County has some of the tallest mountains and most beautiful deserts in Texas, the scenic vistas can quickly prove to be vehicle-wrecking obstacle courses for head-counters going off-road.

Some folks live behind locked ranch gates, miles off the hardtop. Many others have only post office boxes — which census officials declined to use to send out questionnaires — and live on unmarked dirt roads that become impassable when it rains.

Many more are part-time residents whose main household is elsewhere. The back country is littered with primitive dwellings, many of which are seasonal hunting camps. Some are permanent homes to folks who want no part of society, and many appear on maps and in descriptions that census workers are having difficulty using.

Then, there are the residents who begrudge the whole thing.

At the famous mining ghost town, locals are only half-kidding when they hand out “Terlingua Liberation Front” buttons, showing a menacing coiled diamond back rattlesnake.

Each afternoon, a handful gathers on the porch of the century-old trading post to sip $2 longnecks while watching the reflection of the sunset on the mountains to the east.

Recently, the talk turned to the census, more a subject of amusement than resentment.

“I live four miles off Texas 118 on a dirt road, and I never got a census form. No one on my road did. So I called them in April and they said they’d get right on it,” recalled Pam Priddy, a local schoolteacher.

“But then I saw (the census worker) in the post office and said I’ll fill one out for you,” she added.

Martha Stafford, another schoolteacher, shared her tale of bureaucratic muddling.

“I thought it was funny. I sent in my census form and then I got called by the local guy, and redid it with him, and then I got called by someone from El Paso and did it all again,” she said.

Others, she said, were less likely to be so cooperative.

“You’ve got a lot of people out here convinced the government is out to get them. They think they need to hide. And all the fear-mongering down here about how the government is going to take their guns away, and it’s got something to do with the census,” she said.

21 Responses to “Undercounting in western Texas”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    “You’ve got a lot of people out here convinced the government is out to get them. They think they need to hide. And all the fear-mongering down here about how the government is going to take their guns away, and it’s got something to do with the census.”

    Sounds like they don’t want to be counted.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    And thank you SRM for pointing out how these types of challenges are a factor in why the count costs so much.

  3. Dave Says:

    “Many others have only post office boxes — which census officials declined to use to send out questionnaires”

    Does anyone know the official reason the census gave for that?

  4. Pablo S. Says:

    Keep in mind that an undercount in a red state — which, if sufficient, would lead to decreased representation — would benefit the current Administration. The Census reports directly to the President.

  5. nerfoo Says:

    I’m not sure but I think that the problem with a post office box is that people don’t actually live in the box. The census needs to count people ‘where they live’. The underlying backbone of the whole thing is locating livable housing units & counting the people that live there. With a PO Box, the person could physically live anywhere, so where would those numbers go, then, once they came in? What AA would they be assigned to? What congressional district would it be? What city would need funds for that many more police, fire, school, roads, etc?

    And, what kind of cross-referencing would be needed to make sure that their physical address was not *also* counted? And, of course, how much would that cost in time/money for the census?

    Personally, I think that the ‘counting people where they live’ model is the most accurate & most workable on a nation-wide level.

  6. Bobby J Says:

    Pablo S. has it right. The administration takes every opportunity to punish red states. Exhibit 1: census. Exhibit 2: oil spill inaction.

  7. Crew Leader Says:

    @ Pablo S & Bobby J: Yeah, right. It’s all a big Democratic conspiracy! You don’t think the same undercounting happened while a Republican president was in office during the census? You’re both morons! These people DON”T WANT TO BE COUNTED. It’s their constitional right to not cooperate & they are perfectly happy to live with the concequences of not being counted. It’s only the local government officials that are complaining about the undercount because they won’t get as much tax money as they would like to spend because that is what they do best (Republicans & Democrats alike).

    And…unless you forgot…this is the UNITED States of America…not the Red States of America & the Blue States of America.

  8. Pablo S. Says:

    @Crew Leader…I see you wisely concede that undercounting is happening this time around under democratic auspices. Glad we have some common ground.
    Failing to recognize a political battle between red and blue states, however, displays embarrassingly naivete.


  9. anonymous Says:

    Thank you Stephen and MyTwoCensus Professional Journalists for airing this story.

    Yes, there is an undercount in West Texas – I have relatives and friends there.

  10. anonymous Says:

    Pablo – In what way is the undercounting presented in this artical partisan-motivated or precipitated? What would the Republicans have done differently to count these people who don’t want to be counted?

  11. Crew Leader Says:

    @ Pablo S: Politicians love the “them vs. us” battle they have created. And, unfortunately, you & many other fools have gotten sucked into their game. I prefer the idea of having differences but, being united in a common desire to improve this great country. The best way to move forward is to compromise with those you may disagree with for the betterment of ALL citizens.

    And, so you don’t misinturpret me, I don’t “concede that undercounting is happening this time around under democratic auspices”. The 2010 Census is being conducted under the auspices of the Dept. of Commerce. Although, I do believe that Democrats & Republicans, alike, are trying to influence the outcome for the advantage of their respective party. If you really think it only has to do with what party the President belongs to, you are a complete idiot. Congratulations…you graduated from moron.

  12. Pablo S. Says:

    @Crew Leader
    …Interesting how your flawed double-talking arguments leave you resorting to childish name-calling.

    Instead, a first step in cooperation would be recognizing peoples’ differences. How sad for enums if you are indeed a CL.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    Can we all graduate to “chill out” for a second?

    The count is pretty much done and the redistricting piece (controlled by the states) will happen at some point. Yes, there will be politically motivated people out there on both sides and, yes, there will be some interesting political analysis and discussions on both sides. That is for the talking heads on Capital Hill/CSPAN/CNN/FNN/xNN/etc to wrestle with.

    What we all should agree on is that we, the people who did the count, did our best to ensure that the Bureau got the best information from a willing (and in some parts unwilling) public in tough economic times fulfilling an obligation laid out a long time ago in our Constitution. Thank you Census Bureau employees for making this count a memorable one for me and my coworkers. You did a great job under tough circumstances and we thank you for your service.

  14. Pablo S. Says:

    @Anonymous…Thank you for the kind words!
    “…We, the people who did the count, did our best to ensure that the Bureau got the best information from a willing (and in some parts unwilling) public in tough economic times fulfilling an obligation laid out a long time ago in our Constitution.”
    Participants should hold their heads high!

    Was it perfect? No. But given the circumstances, and given the observations of diligence and commitment I observed, it was very well executed.
    Here’s to continued success…including VDC!

  15. James Says:

    So, why is it the cons who mostly are insisting on not cooperating with the census? And that benefits them how exactly? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

  16. Crew Leader Says:

    @ Pablo S: Ok…so maybe…just maybe…you’re not a complete idiot or even a moron. Here is your chance to prove yourself. You have been asked to elaborate on your opinion but, so far, you have ignored the questions. Here is the questions, again. Give it a try.

    anonymous Says:

    July 7th, 2010 at 3:31 pm
    Pablo – In what way is the undercounting presented in this artical partisan-motivated or precipitated? What would the Republicans have done differently to count these people who don’t want to be counted?

  17. Dave Says:

    nerfoo – People receiving forms at PO boxes could write in their physical address in order to be counted where they live.

  18. My Two Census » Blog Archive » Census Countdown Brings Fear of Exclusion Says:

    [...] other instances where the 2010 Census has failed to get an accurate count of residents.  One case was in West Texas, the other instance was in New York City.  These concerns have not been addressed in a [...]

  19. My Two Census » Blog Archive » Undercounting AND a lower participation rate? Says:

    [...] have already addressed concerns of under-counting in the state of Texas.  News 8 in Austin is reporting that Texas has an average response rate that is 3 points below the [...]

  20. Former NRFU-RI Says:

    I have a simple idea: if people don’t want to be counted, DON’T COUNT THEM!

    Regardless of where they live (rural west Texas or urban New York City), mail everyone a form, make the forms widely available in public places (post office, library, church, etc), and whomever mails back the form gets counted.

    I think we ran plenty of ads to convince people to participate. If they don’t, leave them alone. I got a few doors slammed in my face (literally) because people had been visited three or four times already and they were sick of it. If people refuse to answer some questions, don’t keep sending people back to try to wear them down.

  21. HC Texas Says:

    I don’t think anyone who does not live in a remote area can grasp the difficulty of locating an HU much less actually get to it. I was not counted in the 2000 Census and in fact I don’t think any of us south of Alpine were counted after the javelina incident. If I remember correctly the other few enumerators just hid in a hotel room and never went out again.

    Val Beard and the County Commisioners should be applauded for the efforts they have tried to make for the past few years to make sure that the 2010 census would be a more accurate count. It is not the Brewster’s fault all that hard work has fallen repeatedly on deaf ears at the Dallas RCC. Dallas is too out of touch in in charge of numerous states not just Texas.

    Frankly, there are only 8 RCC’s for our entire country and I personally do not see that as being in any way efficient. Somehow the canvassing needs to go back to the states and have some form of quality control to make sure no state is padding the count. There is no way 8 RCC’s can compile information accurately or be “in touch” with what really goes on in the Field.

    I have no faith in the accuracy of this 2010 Census and redistricting should not be allowed since there are so many gross miscounts all over the country.