People living in rural areas, particularly in minority communities, are among those that could be most severely affected by underfunding and a lack of preparation for the 2020 Census, a new report highlights.
Census officials have long had difficulty in counting Americans in rural areas, but the challenge could be exacerbated in 2020 by a new focus on getting Americans to respond to the Census using the internet. The rural areas where people are traditionally hard to count have lower internet access and use rates than the rest of the country, according to the report, which was written by demographer William O’Hare for the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
Failure to accurately count Americans living in rural areas would have significant consequences. Census data is used to determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal assistance are allocated. The data is also used to establish how electoral boundaries are drawn, determining how Americans are represented in Congress and statehouses across the country.
O’Hare identified hard-to-count counties as those places that had the lowest rates of mail return responses in the 2010 Census. His analysis showed “the more rural a county is, the higher the likelihood that it is among the hard-to-count.” A “substantial share” of those hard-to-count people are in places like the Deep South, Southwest and on Indian reservations in areas where African-Americans, hispanics and American Indians make up a majority of the population.
“With undercounted communities receiving less than their fair share of public funds, there will be undue economic pressure in rural communities, many of which are already struggling,” O’Hare said in a statement. “Special outreach will be needed to ensure a complete and accurate count in many rural parts of the nation.”
The report also noted people residing in Appalachia, particularly West Virginia, live in areas that are disproportionately hard to count. Migrant and seasonal farmworkers, who move frequently and often face English language barriers, will also be difficult to count, the report says.
Close watchers of the Census are deeply worried about preparations for the 2020 count, which is required by the Constitution. The U.S. Census Bureau has faced a $200 million shortfall since 2012 and recently canceled two of three dress rehearsal tests for 2020, one of which was supposed to take place in West Virginia.
Advocates are also worried the Census isn’t investing enough in community partnerships needed to build trust to convince people to respond to it. In addition, the bureau has no permanent leadership in place and the White House is reportedly considering a political science professor with no political experience in the department’s chief operational role.
In an effort to be more efficient, the 2020 Census will allow households to respond to an initial inquiry for the first time using the internet, instead of through a mailer. The Census will follow up with households that don’t respond to its initial inquiry, but O’Hare’s report notes that 21 percent of households in rural areas lack internet access, compared to 13 percent in urban areas.
“The paper mode of data collection will not be emphasized like the internet response will be, and Census Bureau research shows that the self-response rates for some groups decrease when an internet mode of response is added,” he wrote.