Budget, staffing shortages at Census could threaten 2020 count in rural areas

There has been a well-reported sense of worry at the U.S. Census Bureau about the upcoming 2020 headcount. Years of underfunding has robbed the agency of critical staffing, and some of the operation tools needed to take the count. Now there’s a new concern that the cuts could result in  the possibility of under-counted populations, especially in rural areas.

“There’s a group of professionals (at the Census Bureau) that have done this before. I think they will probably overcome some of these obstacles. But unless they get full funding and the full support of the administration and the American public, I’m really worried about the outcome,” University of New Hampshire demographer William O’Hare told Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

O’Hare’s study of the potential issues facing the Census Bureau in rural America, released in December, suggests the bureau faces what he calls “the most difficult census the bureau has ever faced.” Like others before him, O’Hare notes a major problem is the lack of money.


Not only has the Census Bureau faced a $200 million budget shortfall since 2012, but it has been told to run the 2020 census at the same cost of the 2010 census. Among the funding victims leading up to the next headcount were two of the three dress rehearsal tests designed to make the rural census more efficient.

The leading tool in the Bureau’s arsenal to bring more efficiency to the process in 2020 is the internet. But that, too, has ramifications for rural America.

“The rural population is much less likely to have internet available in their homes than urban population. So if we are counting on a response from rural areas by internet, it’s probably not going to be as high as it is in urban areas,” said O’Hare.

Rural African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americas and Appalachians are the most likely to be overlooked by the census, according to O’Hare.

“If we look at the 300 counties that are going to be the most difficult to count in 2020, the vast majority are in rural America, particular remote areas like Appalachia, Indian reservations and in pockets of Black rural poverty in the South.”

O’Hare also noted areas of the American Southwest where it’s difficult to get an accurate count. He pointed specifically to the challenges of counting the mostly-Hispanic populations living in unincorporated colonias along the Mexican border, or working as seasonal and migrant farm workers.

Overall, O’Hare reports rural counties represent 79% of “hard-to-count” counties, but represent only 29% of the category’s population. Only 4% of urban counties are hard-to-count, while 16% of rural counties have the classification.

“Generally, rural residents are less likely than urban residents to live in areas that will be the most difficult to enumerate in the 2020 Census, but some groups and some places in rural America will nevertheless be very difficult to enumerate accurately. Special attention is needed for populations and places,” O’Hare said.

Beyond the fact that many in these populations are undocumented, the chances of getting them to complete government census surveys can be daunting.

Recently, the Trump Administration reportedly asked that a question about citizen status be added to the 2020 census questionnaire. The move concerns O’Hare as a blatant attempt to scare immigrants away from participating and being counted.

“Many observers, including me, believe that’s going to have a very chilling effect on large segments of the population who simply will not participate voluntarily in the census. And it’s not just the undocumented workers, it’s other immigrants — including many Muslim immigrants,” O’Hare said.

Counting each person and noting where they live is what the census is all about. Failing to count anyone impacts data used for the distribution of about $600 billion each year. The impact is magnified when you realize that during the decade between census counts, more than $6 trillion is distributed to states and localities by the federal government based on census numbers.

“Undercounted communities do not receive their fair share of public funds for things like schools, hospitals, day care centers, and roads. Rural communities that are already struggling economically can ill afford to lose federal money because they are not fully counted in the Census,” O’Hare stated.

An accurate count impacts local economies, as businesses look at demographics to help them select sites for potential expansion. It is used to determine civil rights enforcement through fair housing laws and voting rights. It also plays a key role in allocating political power through reapportionment of seats in Congress and the drawing of new legislative districts.

Beyond the need for money and staff at the Census Bureau, O’Hare is hoping that advocates for rural areas emerge to monitor the bureau to insure it is paying attention. He would like to see states and localities form census complete count committees to make sure rural areas are not overlooked.

“Particularly because the Census Bureau is underfunded this census cycle, the contributions that states and localities can make in terms of providing information to folks encouraging them to participate in the census will be vital,” O’Hare said.

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