City’s Census Initiative Sparks Debate

By Urban Reform Staff | May 2, 2019

This week, council considered an agenda item to spend $650,000 on Phase I of an effort to improve census responses in the city of Houston. While the federal government already conducts the census, the city’s goal is to encourage more people to respond to the count and ensure that no one is left uncounted, this would allow the city to receive more federal funding than they otherwise would have. The item was tagged, meaning the vote was delayed until next week.

The program is called the Census “2020” Engagement Initiative. The city’s argument is that every additional person registered equates to $1,500 in federal funds coming back to the city. Some council members argued that if the initiative identifies just a few hundred additional residents, the program would pay for itself in the long run. The assumption isn’t entirely off base, on different occasions the city challenged or appealed its census count resulting in population bumps of 3 percent in 2006 and 1 percent in 2008.

However, the costs of the program drew concern.

“In the interest of transparent, this is Phase 1 of a 2-phase program…we’re talking about spending basically $1.6 million not $650,000. Because it’s $650,000 for the first phase and $972,000 for the second phase,” said Mike Knox. Knox argues that if council approves the first phase, it would be highly unlikely that they wouldn’t do the same when the second phase comes to council for approval.

The first phase of the initiative isn’t going to be used to register voters. Most of the “goals” of Phase I consist of training and preparation in advance of actual census outreach.

The item will be brought back to council next week for consideration and a vote.

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