By Kendall Crawford, Iowa Public Radio
A simple look at the signs on Main Street in Denison reveal the diversity of the residents that reside here.
A quick stroll and you’ll stumble across Lovan’s Asian market. Round a corner, and you’ll see signs advertising an African grocery store. But, if you follow the upbeat rhythm of traditional Mexican music, you’ll land at Erven Chavez’s La Michoacana Krazy Delights.
The owner of the ice cream shop moved to Denison in 2009. Since then, Chavez has started two of his own businesses in town. But, it wasn’t until 2020 that the Guatemalan immigrant learned what the census does.
“We can tell the people how important that is,” Chavez said. “Because they don’t know. I didn’t know that either. Until we had a meeting with the police chief and he explained that to us.”
In the 2020 census, Latino communities were undercounted by nearly 5 percent nationally – a significant increase from the decade prior. And, while the Census Bureau didn’t report a significant undercount for Iowa, city officials in towns with large Latino and minority populations said the census numbers do not reflect what they see in their communities.
The disparity can mean greater obstacles to building the infrastructure they need.
Building the trust
When the Denison chapter president of League of United Latin American Citizens, Alma Puga, saw the Census Bureau’s estimate for the population for her town, she was angry. She said it didn’t align with what she saw out in the community.
“I see it every day,” Puga said. “There’s new immigrant populations coming, and I felt like that was very underrepresented.”
According to the Census Bureau, the western Iowa town only grew by 75 people from 2010 to 2020, putting its population at around 8,400. But, city officials say that’s not the reality. They estimate another 2,000 people didn’t participate in the decennial count.
Puga was part of Denison’s Count Committee, which held events to help people fill out their census form. In her outreach, she found that there were many residents like Chavez who were unaware of its purpose and, more importantly, its consequences.
She said many residents were fearful of the survey – especially those who where undocumented. And, in 2019, as former president Donald Trump pushed for a citizenship question to be added to the Census, that fear was heightened.
She said she believes government distrust – alongside COVID-19 – stopped a lot of people from being counted.
“Some concerns were ‘Are they going to use it against me? Like the information is going to be confidential?’,” she said. “I had a couple people tell me ‘Well, what use if things are going to stay the same? What difference does it make?’”
But, the census can have big financial implications for a community – especially smaller Iowa towns. The number of residents counted determines how much a town receives in Road Use Tax Funds (RUTF) – which help communities construct and maintain their roadways.
That means, Storm Lake mayor Mike Porsch has a disappointing math problem to solve. He estimates around 30 percent of their population was missed in the count. Each person is tied to around $126 in funds. That all adds up to nearly $400,000 that the community won’t receive.
“And you multiply that by 10 years before your next census, it’s $4 million dollars that you don’t have through that whole period of time because of the census,” he said. “That would be the entire snow removal budget.”
Denison city manager Bradley Hanson estimated that the town comes up short around $200,000 in funds due to its undercount. He said that roughly equates to redoing an entire block of roads and the infrastructure underneath.
He said the loss in funds has a domino effect. Although the city has some pandemic aid dollars to help address infrastructure, Hansen said, further down the line, they’ll have to look to other means to get the missing revenue.
“Unfortunately our taxes are going to increase to be able to do that extra block or whatever we need,” Hanson said. “And usually the people that live on that block will be the ones that pay for at least a portion of it.”
A barrier to progress
Another concern for city officials, like Storm Lake city councilwoman Maria Ramos, is how an inaccurate count could potentially stifle economic development for the town. Ramos said she often hears questions from constituents about why the community can’t bring in more businesses and attractions.
“How come JC Penney doesn’t come to Storm Lake? How come we don’t have a mall? How come the bigger chain restaurants don’t come to Storm Lake?,” Ramos said residents often ask. “What they need to understand is that that’s what they look at. They need to understand that they look at our population size and decide whether businesses are going to be profitable here.”
This fear – that impactful decisions will be made based on faulty data – extends to health providers, housing developers and social services.
At the Storm Lake Middle School, superintendent Stacey Cole said you can see the need for more community resources. Even during the summer, the school is crowded with kids. She said that’s partly because the school has become a vital provider of social services to the almost 3,000 students in the district.
“Our need looks a lot smaller than what our need actually is,” Cole said. “So because we can’t count on getting outside agencies to the community, then we have to put that in place internally, to make sure that those things are still done.”
It means making hard decisions – like whether to hire a school therapist to address community mental health or another third grade teacher to tackle large classroom sizes.
It also limits their ability to address the diverse set of needs in the district, Cole said. Without the ability to partner with outside agencies, there’s less funding and resources to develop projects that could grow into fully grant-funded programs.
“[Funders] say if it’s not important enough to you to put money into, it’s not important enough to us,” she said. “And the issue is that we just have very unique challenges that stop some of that stuff from happening.”
The next decade
Denison faces much of the same. The town’s most recent housing survey showed that the community is in need of 200 additional housing units, but Puga worries about how the town will address the shortage when it can’t use the census to lure developers in.
“These developers are not going to want to come to our county. They’re not gonna want to build here,” Puga said. “They’re gonna think we’re pretty much dying. But we’re not.”
For residents, like Chavez, it’s sad to see the community continue to struggle without the infrastructure to support its rapid growth. He said he’d like to see more companies, more housing and a sports complex for the town.
“Because we want to make Denison better every day. Why? Because our kids are here. And they are growing here. And we love Denison, too,” Chavez said.
He said he hopes, over the next decade, housing developers and health providers will grow to love the town, too. Despite what the numbers say.