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Travis County, city of Austin ramp up census efforts

Monday, August 5, 2019 by Jack Craver

Travis County and the city of Austin are mounting an aggressive effort to make sure the 2020 U.S. census count is as complete and accurate as possible.

The county and city are collaborating by jointly funding a temporary position “to energize and coordinate Census outreach and education efforts throughout our community,” according to a county memo.

John Lawler, who previously worked as an aide to City Council Member Greg Casar for two and a half years, was recently appointed to the temporary position, which he will hold through September 2020. Last year, Lawler oversaw Keep Austin Affordable, a political action committee supporting the $250 million affordable housing bond voters approved in November.

“His job for the next 14 months is going to be to organize and energize a census effort throughout the county,” Deece Eckstein, the head of intergovernmental relations for the county, told the Travis County Commissioners Court at a July 30 meeting. “We want the census to be viral. We want people to be excited about it. We want word to be spreading, however many ways it can.”

Among the challenges the effort aims to address is low participation among young and low-income people. The 135,000 university students in Travis County, for instance, are typically undercounted, said Eckstein, often because they assume they are being counted at their parents’ residence.

Lawler told the commissioners that while he would be located in the county building on Lavaca Street, his goal was to be out in the community as much as possible, collaborating with different organizations and leaders to increase awareness of the census and its significance.

The decennial U.S. census is run by the federal government and is not traditionally the responsibility of local governments. However, local governments have a keen interest in making sure every one of their constituents is counted.

First, the census is the basis of local, state and federal political representation. A state or county that is undercounted risks losing seats in the state Legislature or Congress as a result.

Second, the census has major implications for local programs that receive federal funding, which is often allocated based on population. Highway construction, early childhood programs like Head Start, low-income housing, and grants to schools are a few of the most important federally funded programs.

“There’s $675 billion a year in federal money allocated based in part on census formulas,” Eckstein said.

Mayor Steve Adler and County Judge Sarah Eckhardt are leading a joint committee of 32 leaders of local institutions – school districts, municipalities, nonprofits and business groups – aimed at raising awareness and increasing participation in the census.

“The whole idea of the effort is to just have lots of little, well-organized campaigns going on, so that Joe’s Muffler Shop has a little thing going on. To make sure that everybody who works at the muffler shop participates in the census and to make sure that customers who come in and out know about it,” said Eckstein.

After the presentation, the Commissioners Court unanimously adopted a resolution to support the goals articulated by Eckstein and Lawler, including encouraging people in the community “to place an emphasis on the 2020 Census and participate in events and initiatives that will raise overall awareness and ensure a full and accurate census.”

Photo, modified, courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau made available through a Creative Commons license.

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