Fear, lack of funding hurt census in Sun Belt, advocates say

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Even with the population increase in Arizona being among one of the fastest-growing states during the last decade, its 7.1 million population, especially in the Phoenix area shown here, the increase was not enough to give the state a 10th congressional seat announced by the Census Bureau Monday, April 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

According to the new census, the booming Sun Belt isn’t booming quite like the experts thought.

Population counts released Monday came as a shock to many demographers and politicians who expected to see growth that could add numerous congressional seats to a region that’s apparently been gaining people rapidly all decade. Instead, the census found more modest growth that added only three seats total in Florida and Texas. Arizona, the second-fastest growing state in 2010, didn’t add a seat at all.

The questions that advocacy groups and officials are now asking are whether all the new subdivisions and shopping centers are a mirage; whether those states erred in not investing more in encouraging residents to fill out census forms — and whether Latinos in particular were reluctant to trust the Trump administration with their information.

Many demographers caution it's too early to conclude that the nation's once-a-decade count missed any specific population groups. That won't be known until more local data is released later this year and the Census Bureau has completed an independent survey measuring the accuracy of the 2020 head count.

But one thing is indisputable — when compared to the most recent population estimates, the three Sun Belt states underperformed during the count used for determining how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. Texas got two extra seats instead of three; Florida added only a single new seat instead of two, and Arizona failed to gain the seat it was expecting to add.

All three states are led by Republican governors who devoted less resources than other states to encouraging participation in the 2020 census. And in all three states, Hispanics have accounted for about half of the population growth over the decade, according to American Community Survey data.

In Arizona, activists blamed Gov. Doug Ducey for supporting the Trump administration's failed effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire. Those efforts intimidated Latinos and kept them from fully participating in the census, they said.

“What we saw from the government, Ducey and the Trump administration, was intimidation from Day 1 on the census,” said Eduardo Sainz, national field director for Mi Familia Vota, a political advocacy group. “Because of this narrative of fear, and this narrative of not funding, we lost that seat.”