State Watch

Rural counties at risk ahead of Census count

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Observers are worried that the U.S. Census Bureau is unprepared to accurately tally many residents in rural America, a little more than two years before the nation’s decennial exercise in counting its own residents.
The concerns grew recently when the Census Bureau canceled a planned test of new technologies and methodologies, a decision made as the bureau faces a funding shortfall that even Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross calls troubling.
Undercounting communities can lead to a decade of headaches and missed funding, especially for smaller rural areas that depend heavily on federal money to make up their budgets. And it is those rural counties, observers say, that are most at risk of having their populations overlooked or underestimated.
{mosads}“The Census is intended to be a complete count of everyone in the country, but people are always missed, that is, undercounted, and people in some places and groups are more likely to be missed than others,” William O’Hare, a demographer and visiting fellow at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, wrote in a new report.
Rural populations are more difficult to count than urban areas because fewer rural residents return Census forms sent by mail. They also experience higher rates of poverty, and those in poverty are less likely to respond than higher-income households. 
Rural Americans are also less likely to have access to the internet, at a time when the Census Bureau is increasingly relying on the internet to reach those who do not return mailed forms. The Census Bureau hopes to solicit about 80 percent of their responses in 2020 via the internet.
Earlier this year, the Census Bureau canceled several field tests of its new methodologies, including a test in West Virginia aimed explicitly at rural residents.
“We are very concerned,” said Phil Sparks, the co-director of The Census Project, which keeps tabs on planning for 2020. “This was the only real test prior to the 2020 census of new counting techniques for the next decennial.”
Sparks said it is “highly unusual” that a test would be canceled and that the Census Bureau typically conducts those tests in a year ending in 8, two years before the decennial count.
Ross, who once worked as a census taker himself, asked Congress to appropriate an additional $3.3 billion for the census earlier this year. The count is estimated to cost up to $15.6 billion.
“The Census is the bedrock upon which we construct our system of democratic representation,” Ross told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in October.
But many new technologies the Census Bureau plans to use to ensure an accurate count are behind schedule and untested.
O’Hare’s report highlighted six populations most at risk of being missed by Census takers: Blacks in the rural South, Hispanics in the rural Southwest, Native Americans on reservations, Native Alaskans, residents of Appalachia and migrant or seasonal farmworkers.
The bureau considers 316 counties that returned the fewest number of census forms in 2010 — the last time the Census was conducted — as “hard to count” areas. Those counties are disproportionately in rural areas, and almost a third are counties in which the population is mostly made up of minorities.
Hard-to-reach counties where most of the population is African-American are in states like Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana. Hispanic-dominated counties in Texas and New Mexico are the most difficult to count. Alaska has a high number of difficult to reach boroughs, and Native American populations in Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Oklahoma also had some of the lowest response rates in the country.
The Trump administration has been slow to fill top jobs at the Census Bureau after Director John Thompson resigned earlier this year. The administration is considering Thomas Brunell, a demographer at the University of Texas at Dallas, to fill the No. 2 slot, though his writings on redistricting have come under scrutiny in recent weeks.
The federal government uses census to dole out hundreds of billions of dollars for federal programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Section 8 housing vouchers, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and even highway funding. Without an accurate count, rural areas stand to lose out on funding for which they would otherwise qualify.
“It is important that rural scholars, rural leaders, and rural advocates monitor Census Bureau funding and Census planning over the next two years to make sure there are adequate resources for a complete and accurate count of all rural residents,” O’Hare wrote.
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