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U.S. Census: Why did Lake Worth Beach see a 20 percent population increase?

by Jorge Millian

Ernesto Ramirez has only been in the United States since August 2017.

But that's been long enough for the 16-year-old junior at Lake Worth High School to gain a strong command of English and an appreciation for the importance of participating in the U.S. census, especially for underserved communities.

So after his school day was over last year, Ramirez spent afternoons and early evenings volunteering with the Guatemalan Maya Center in Lake Worth Beach working to get folks like himself — he was born in town of Concepcion Huista in Guatemala and raised speaking the Mayan language of Popti' — counted.

"We knocked on doors and tried to convince people to fill out the census," he explained.

Did it work?

"It did," Ramirez said. "A lot."

He's right, judging by data released recently from the 2020 census.

Lake Worth Beach's population jumped 20.9% from 2010 to just over 42,000 residents. That marked the seventh-highest increase among Palm Beach County's 39 municipalities and substantially exceeded the county's overall growth of 13%.

Leading the upward charge in Lake Worth Beach were those identifying as "some other race" in the census' list of racial categories. In 2010, just over 3,100 residents checked off "other," representing 8.9% of the population. In 2020, the number catapulted by 158.5% to 8,046 residents, or more than 19% of the city's population, matching that of Blacks.

The Mayan community's presence in Lake Worth Beach

Much of that increase is believed to have come from the city's sizable Mayan immigrant community, which was encouraged by volunteers to write in "Maya" under the race category.

Lindsay McElroy, who headed the Guatemalan Maya Center's census outreach efforts, said some local Mayans chose to identify under the American Indian category, a group whose numbers climbed by 25% climb from 2010.

Lake Worth Beach Commissioner Christopher McVoy theorizes that the population rise reflected in the census is "much less an actual net influx of people and more a better job of counting them."

That would specifically include the Mayan community, a group that fled the Guatemalan government's genocidal attacks during the 1980s and arrived in Palm Beach County mostly undocumented and afraid of authorities.

"There definitely was fear in the community about filling out the census because, when there’s a stranger knocking on your door here, you never know what to expect," McElroy aid.

Enter volunteers like Ramirez, who was able to speak to his neighbors — and coax them into filling out the forms — in Popti'. The Guatemalan Mayan Center also provided speakers of the Q'anjob'al, Mam and Kiiche languages.

"I told them they didn’t have to be afraid of the information they gave to the census and that there would be no problem with immigration or anything like that," said Ramirez, who is seeking asylum in the U.S. along with his mother. "They trust people better if it's from their community.”

Joining Lake Worth Beach with large shares of residents who checked off "some other race" were nearby Palm Springs — 18.8% — and Greenacres — 16.3%.

"These people have always been here," said McElroy of the Guatemalan Maya Center. "I’m just glad that now, people can actually see that they’re here.”

Aside from census skeptics, an accurate count was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. That was true everywhere but especially in Lake Worth Beach, which experienced high positive rates while counting was taking place.

Despite those obstacles, the city's population growth was surpassed by only six other cities in Palm Beach County. Four of those six cities — Gulf Stream, Highland Beach, Juno Beach and South Palm Beach — are far smaller than Lake Worth Beach. And only one — Palm Beach Gardens with a 22.1% population jump — is larger.

Big demographic change in Lake Worth Beach, but it is not reflected in city government

Another takeaway from the 2020 census is that Hispanics are now a plurality in Lake Worth Beach, accounting for 45.8% of residents. Only in Palm Springs do Hispanics comprise a larger share of the population, 60.2%. Only Palm Springs — 60.2% — has a higher share of Hispanics.

Those people identifying only as white, including white Hispanics, in Lake Worth Beach dropped by more than 4,500 residents to 39% of the population. They accounted for 60% in 2010.

Non-Hispanic whites are 31.4% of Lake Worth Beach's population, down from 38.1% in 2010.

Despite those numbers, Hispanics are rarely seen in Lake Worth Beach politics. The five-person commission is all-white, as is the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and various advisory boards.

Santos Arroyo, founder of the West Palm Beach-based Florida Hispanic American Chamber of Commerce, said that's not much different from other cities in Palm Beach County.

Arroyo points out the county didn't have its first Hispanic school board member until last year and estimates "less than 10" Hispanics on local city commissions. The latest census figures show Hispanics make up 23.5.% of Palm Beach County.

"We don't have the representation that we need," Arroyo said.

Part of the issue, Arroyo said, is that many local Hispanics are residents, not citizens, so they cannot vote.

There's also a lack of infrastructure to support Spanish-speaking candidates, although groups like Hispanic Political Action Committee are looking to change that by identifying, then by backing, candidates.

"In a way, it’s our fault because we need to start attending the meetings at city hall and create a big presence," Arroyo said. "That’s what we’re trying to do.”

In Lake Worth Beach, the population gains will translate into increased federal funding, critical in a city where nearly 25% of its residents were living in poverty in 2010. City officials say the city was dramatically undercounted in the 2010 census and had a goal of counting 50,000 residents in 2020. They fell short of that, but the gains were substantial.

McVoy, who speaks Spanish, is married to a Venezuelan and has close ties to the Guatemalan community, said it's the city, not any particular group, that comes out ahead.

"Human beings are human beings," he said. "Those that are here need to be factored in to services we provide, education, in all sorts of aspects. So, I’m much happier that we know who’s here, than not.”

Read full story on the Palm Beach Post here.

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