North Carolina could miss out on an additional congressional seat and forfeit billions of dollars in state and federal tax dollars that rightfully belong to state citizens unless the people who live here get more serious about participating in the 2020 Census.
North Carolina’s response rate is poor overall and abysmal in some counties where those dollars, sent to Washington in the form of taxes paid by North Carolinians, are desperately needed. Unless the census reflects an accurate count of Tarheel residents, North Carolina’s share of federal money will go to other states.
As of August 13, North Carolina’s response rate of 59.6 percent trailed the national response rate of 63.6 percent by four points. Response rates in some counties were far worse. Examples include: Avery, 29.9 percent; Swain, 33.3 percent, Jackson, 33 percent; Dare, 34.8 percent, Hyde, 38.5 percent.
The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 2) requires that a census of the nation’s population occur every 10 years. The first one took place in 1790. The most basic reason for the census is to apportion the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The number of representatives is fixed by law at 435. Based on its population in 2010, North Carolina sends 13 to Congress. While some states are projected to lose seats after the 2020 census, North Carolina is projected to gain a seat. Census counts are also used for redistricting within the state, which means undercounted areas won’t get fair representation in state government either. By not participating in the Census you are disempowering yourself and your community and not just by the loss of fair representation in federal and state government. Based on Census data, states and local communities received more than $675 billion in federal funds for health, education, housing, and infrastructure programs during Fiscal Year 2015, according to one study. Every person counted in the Census brings about $2,000 in federal spending to the state over the next 10 years, another study estimated.
Census counts are used by federal, state and local governments to plan the location of everything from post offices and schools to libraries and fire stations. A community that’s undercounted could face a longer drive (on poorer roads) to use a library computer or longer wait times for a fire truck or the EMS to arrive. Those extra minutes could make a life or death difference in some heart attack, allergic reaction or drug overdose cases.
When scouting for locations, manufacturers, businesses and commercial outlets also use Census data. Undercounted areas are less likely to attract the jobs and opportunities they offer.
And as any genealogist knows, Census data is an invaluable source of family history. The information – name, age, gender, ethnicity and relationship to the head of household of each person living at a given address – cannot, by law, be released by the U.S. Census Bureau for 72 years, not to the public or to any other government agency, including law enforcement or immigration authorities. All Census workers are sworn to protect this information and can be punished by a $250,000 fine and five years in prison if they fail to do so. Only demographic data is released.
But for anyone wanting to know more about who and where they came from, once it’s released after 72 years, Census data provides vital information. For instance, the descendants of recent immigrants will one day be able to find their ancestors and mark the arrival of their family in the United States through Census data.
The 2020 Census operation began in 2019, but was put on hold in the spring as a result of the pandemic. In April, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham asked Congress to extend the statutory deadlines. That hasn’t happened, but 48 senators are asking Senate and House leaders to include an extension in the next coronavirus relief package.
In the meantime, the Census restarted in July. At the beginning of August, the Trump administration decided to end all counting efforts on Sept. 30, a month sooner than previously announced. If no extension is granted, the result is expected to be a grievous undercount, especially in poor and minority communities.
Everyone living in the United States is required by law to respond to the Census. Census workers are being trained and deployed to knock on the doors of people who haven’t yet done so. These workers will have government identification badges, will be wearing face coverings and are being trained to follow other safety precautions to reduce the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus.
But without an extension, it seems unlikely they will be able to get a complete count. If you are one of those non-participants, you can save yourself from having your day interrupted by a census worker and help stake your own and your community’s claim to your rightful voice and share of assets by completing the Census online or over the phone. Both options allow you to choose your preferred language. It will take less than 10 minutes.
Our founders understood that having accurate demographic information was essential to allocating power and resources equitably in a self-governing nation. Every North Carolinian ought to do his or her part to insure our state gets its fair share of both.
Joy Franklin is a retired journalist who writes for carolinacommentary.com.