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.

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