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Census challenges booming region

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As federal, state and local groups prepare for the U.S. Census in 2020, some southeast New Mexico government and business leaders are asking how the agency will count people and what advice census employees are giving about answers to some questions.

A Census Bureau specialist spoke to members of the Southeast New Mexico Economic Development District Board of Directors at its Friday meeting at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell about efforts to promote participation in the census surveys.

Veronica Azarte de Reyes, New Mexico senior partnership specialist, reiterated that the population numbers and demographic data gathered by the census will play a major part in determining how $675 billion annually in federal dollars is distributed nationwide. The data gathered will be valid until the 2030 Census. New Mexico is the U.S. state most at risk of an undercount, according to New Mexico Counts 2020.

“If we want to protect the amount of money coming back to New Mexico,” said Azarte de Reyes, “we need to count everyone. If we do an undercount and don’t show everyone living here, we will receive funding, but we will be short.”

The census also is used in nonprofit grant-funding decisions and at the state level for job training monies or capital outlay decisions. And it can determine how many representatives a region has in Congress or in the state Legislature.

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The Southeast New Mexico Economic Development District represents five counties and 21 towns and cities. Some of those entities’ representatives are in the Permian Basin area of Eddy and Lea counties, which are experiencing an oil and gas boom and rapid, large population growth as a result.

One of the concerns some expressed is how people will be counted. Lea and Eddy county representatives want workers who live in southeast New Mexico for most days of the year to be counted here, not wherever their family homes may be. In many cases for Permian Basin workers, that could be Texas. While they might have a family home elsewhere, the district members said, people who work here the majority of days in the year use local roads, local water, local housing and other local services.

One city representative said he’s been told that surveys will be double-checked and that people listed on two surveys could be counted as residents of their family home, even if they work most months in New Mexico. Azarte de Reyes said she thinks people will be counted where they spend the majority of their time.

Some people also asked Azarte de Reyes what she advised when people did not want to answer sensitive questions, such as those regarding income, and whether unanswered questions would disqualify the survey from being counted.

She said people should be encouraged to answer all questions, but that most likely, incomplete data would only result in a follow-up by census staff rather than a complete disregard of the survey.

She and others cautioned against incorrect responses. Dora Batista, SENMEDD executive director, said that one governmental entity in the district has been underfunded for 10 years because its median income does not indicate that it is an economically disadvantaged area, as it is. In spite of a protest filed with the Census Bureau, the data remains unchanged and census staff have suggested that some people filling out surveys could have provided wrong income information.

The Office of the Governor has allocated $3.5 million to various cities and counties for census outreach, Azarte de Reyes said. The amount allocated for counties is based on both population numbers and the percentage of those who are considered “hard to reach,” which could include undocumented residents, people who work outside the home a lot, the homeless, people in very remote areas, non-English speakers, or those with many families living in one dwelling. Children under 5 also have historically been undercounted in the state, she said.

As of August 2019, the state had 32 established Complete Count Committees and 19 were in the process of being formed, according to a New Mexico Counts 2020 document.

The Census 2020 Complete Count Committee for the Roswell area is headed by Marcos Nava, executive director of the Hispano Chamber of Commerce, and has about six subcommittees, including one staffed by Chaves County managers. Chaves County has received $52,000 for outreach efforts and plans to use about $25,000 to give to the city of Roswell for its promotional and media efforts, an amount county officials said they expect will be matched by the city.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.