Texas Legislature

Census Immigration Questions Could Cost Texas a Bunch of Money

A worker tabulates the 1960 census.
A worker tabulates the 1960 census. U.S. Census Bureau
Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that the 2020 census will include questions about immigration status for the first time since 1950. The policy change, supported by Texas officials including Attorney General Ken Paxton and Sen. Ted Cruz, could have a tremendous effect of the Texas' already tight budget, according to experts, by depressing census responses from the 1.65 million undocumented residents who are believed to live in the state.

In announcing the new question Monday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said any potential decrease in responses caused by asking about immigration status was worth it because the new survey would produce more reliable data.

"The citizenship data provided to [the Department of Justice] will be more accurate with the question than without it, which is of greater importance than any adverse effect that may result from people violating their legal duty to respond," Ross wrote in a memo to Department of Commerce employees.

On Tuesday, Cruz echoed Ross, praising the secretary for ensuring the reliability of the country's headcount.

"It is imperative that the data gathered in the census is reliable, given the wide-ranging impacts it will have on U.S. policy,” Cruz said in a joint statement with Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.

In Texas, at least, one of those policy impacts could be a big hole in the state's budget when the Legislature convenes in 2021. If the census undercounts the number of residents in the state, Texas won't receive as much federal money as it's entitled to over the 10 years after 2020. The state could also lose out on additional congressional seats and electoral votes to which it would otherwise be entitled.

“Texas has one of the largest immigrant populations in the country, and Texas stands to lose big,” El Paso state Rep. Cesar Blanco said during a Wednesday news conference in Austin. “If Texas is undercounted, the bottom line is Texas loses. Our businesses lose, our communities lose, our families lose. This isn’t about politics. This is about getting Texas its fair share of resources.”

For every 1 percent of the population that Texas is potentially undercounted, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, the state could lose $291 million in federal funding that would otherwise go to programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start preschool and the Children's Health Insurance Program, as well as things like highways and parks.

"If we don't have everybody counted, we're going to have to pay more to serve the same number of people," says Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities. "The formulas [for different federal programs] assume that a certain population size brings you a certain amount of money. ... Texas already has an undercount — we don't know how big it is. To make that even worse, it's just more and more money that we have to come up with here instead of getting federal help to pay for it."

There are more than 400,000 Dallas County residents on Medicaid, including more than 300,000 children. Fifty-one thousand more kids are covered by CHIP. The federal government picks up 58 percent of the cost of insuring Medicaid patients and 93 percent of the cost of insuring children on CHIP, but if fewer people who live in Texas answer their census questionnaires, the state will receive even less of the money than it should.

"A census undercount means those kids would still be eligible. They would still qualify for assistance for health care, but the state would have to come up with more and more money for its end of the cost," Castro says.

A state that has as hard of a time with the budgeting process as Texas can't afford to give up federal money, Castro says.

"If advocates thought that the state would step right up to the plate and make up for that lost federal aid, there wouldn't be as much concern. We'd be like, 'Don't worry, we'll pay for it ourselves out of our own tax dollars.'" Castro says. "That's not the Texas in which we live."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young