Coronavirus implications for the Census

There’s a lot of speculation around the state regarding how long the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will last in North Carolina.

Weeks?

Months?

The betting line here is 10 years.

That’s how long it will be before the next Census.

The Census, mandated by the U.S. Constitution, strives to count every individual in the country. The data is used to determine political representation and determines redistricting at the federal, state and local levels.

It is also used to determine the distribution of more than $675 billion in annual funding, or more than $4 trillion over the course of the decade the data will be used.

The 2020 Census is underway, and North Carolina isn’t doing so well when it comes to self-response rates.

As for March 28, the national response rate for the Census stood at 30.2 percent. North Carolina checked in at 27.7 percent.

But some counties fell far, far below that number.

In the western part of the state, Jackson County is a picturesque locale encircled by the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge escarpment. It’s home to Western Carolina University, Southwestern Community College and a wealthy retirement community in Cashiers at the south end.

The response rate there was 11.9 percent.

If that doesn’t pick up, it’s going to cost the county in federal funding for schools, public safety, seniors services, food assistance, you name it. The calculation for the county is that the Census count will deliver $1,600 in federal funding for each person counted, or $16,000 over the next decade.

The response rates will pack a punch on a county that’s going to need help getting back on its feet – like every city, county and state in the country in a post-coronavirus world – if they don’t improve.

Likely many mostly rural counties, Jackson faces some challenges with internet access in the rugged terrain of the southern Appalachians. The Census rollout has also been walloped by COVID-19. The public library had geared up to offer internet access for those who couldn’t access the form at home, but closed as a health precaution. Other community partners that stepped up also have had to step back.

Another complicating factor comes with the thousands of students at WCU caught off guard by the shuttering of the institution after they’d departed for spring break.

“In general, students in colleges and universities temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 virus will still be counted as part of this process. Even if they are home on Census day, April 1, they should be counted according to the residence criteria which states they should be counted where they live and sleep most of the time. We are asking schools to contact their students and remind them to respond.

“Per the Census Bureau’s residence criteria, in most cases students living away from home at school should be counted at school, even if they are temporarily elsewhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

North Carolina needs to get its response rate up. There are no do-overs. Once it’s completed, we live with the results for the next decade.

Next time you’re able to venture out, take a moment to slow down and think about the impact of tax dollars on your life and the lives of those you love. How are the roads? What’s the state of public transportation for those who need it? Are services for seniors readily accessible? How about child care?

Census returns mean a lot to seniors, a lot to students and to young children. We can’t stress the latter enough, and children up to the age of 4 are at a higher risk of being undercounted. During the 2010 Census the Census Bureau estimated 25,000 young children weren’t counted in North Carolina, the eight-highest undercount in the nation.

Should that happen again, that translates to $400 million off the table over a decade that should have been dedicated to a vulnerable population.

If people don’t get counted, it’s not like money is being saved. The tax dollars work their way up the pipeline to be reallocated. 

What goes up, contrary to the saying, doesn’t always come down. 

Stand up and be counted. If not for yourself, for your loved ones and neighbors

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