Survey Says…

Census provides critical information for funding and representation

Cliff Mendheim, Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce board chairman, speaks about the history and importance of the nationwide census at a recent news conference.

If answering 10 questions netted $1,600 in benefits per year, how would you respond? If so, your chance arrives in mid-March when the 2020 census begins.

While Wiregrass Electric Cooperative members will not pocket cash directly for completing the survey, they and their communities will reap the benefits in several ways. In the last decade, the 2010 census partially determined how about $8 billion in federal funding was spent in Alabama per year, says Dothan Mayor Mark Saliba — a figure that roughly equates to $1,600 per state resident who responded to the survey.

Census-impacted funding affects 132 programs, including Medicaid, highway improvement projects, Section 8 housing vouchers, Head Start, Early Head Start, several nutrition initiatives, the Child Health Insurance Program, and many educational programs, Saliba says.

“The census is so important for a lot of things for our area,” says Brad Kimbro, WEC’s chief operating officer. “For our county governments, it means so much funding for things like paved roads. Economic development is affected by paved roads, and we’re a big supporter of economic development. We want to live with the funding we’re entitled to.”

In the last decade, though, the Wiregrass missed out on a significant amount of those federal dollars due to poor response rates for the 2010 census. Officials estimate 73% of residents in Houston and Geneva counties answered the survey, while only 59% of Henry County residents participated.

That is why civic and business leaders from those three counties partnered together recently to promote the importance of the census through various business groups, community organizations, and churches.

“If the census doesn’t reflect our community accurately, the shortfall in budget dollars has to be made up somehow or the programs suffer,” says Lori Wilcoxon, the tri-county’s census coordinator.

In addition to federal funding, the census determines other vital aspects of American government — namely, electoral votes and legislative districts for the U.S. House of Representatives. Though Alabama has experienced some growth in the last decade, some experts believe the state could lose an electoral vote — and the accompanying U.S. representative — since some other Southern states have registered faster population explosions.

Electoral votes, not necessarily the popular vote nationwide, determine who wins a presidential election every four years.

An accurate count could prevent Alabama’s potential reduction and the major reshaping of districts that would follow. Kimbro suggests the district that includes the Wiregrass could expand to incorporate cities like Auburn or Mobile, which could impact how well the area is represented in the district in future years.

“If we do lose a House seat from seven to six, our district as well as the other districts will look significantly different,” says state Rep. Steve Clouse, whose 93rd District covers portions of Dale and Houston counties. “Because of us being in the corner, it’s probably not going to be in a good way. We need to do our part in the Wiregrass region to make sure we get as many folks counted as possible.”

Clouse notes that Utah lost an electoral vote after the 2010 census but would not have if the U.S. Census Bureau had registered just 435 more respondents in the Beehive State — highlighting the importance of counting every Alabamian.

“People ask, ‘What can I do to help my community?’ Fill out the census survey,” Kimbro says.

State House District 93 Rep. Steve Clouse, right, tells a crowd at the Dothan Civic Center that a poor participation rate in the 2020 census could cost Alabama an electoral vote as Houston County Commission Chairman Mark Culver stands in support.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has targeted a 90% participation rate statewide for the 2020 census, a goal local officials also hope to obtain. Scott Farmer, executive director of the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, says the partnership will address several of the challenges officials encounter when trying to count all Wiregrass residents.

“Parts of Dothan are hard-to-count areas. These are folks that might not receive media the way other folks do, who are not out and about,” says Farmer, whose organization helps small municipalities obtain and utilize federal grants. “A lot of this is pulling resources together, like, coordinating with the Dothan-Houston County Library System to get the message out and help people fill out the census. I think it’s important to educate people through different groups, whether it’s schools, churches, people like United Way officials.”

The U.S. Census Bureau will not mail forms to post office boxes, impacting people who utilize them, and creating another challenge. Technological advances may curb that impact, though, as for the first time people can respond to the census online from mid-March to April 30.

After April, the census bureau will visit dwellings from which they received no response.

Public perception of the census also presents a problem in obtaining an accurate count. Some people may confuse the census with the American Community Survey, which contains several pages of questions about income and other demographics that may discourage people from answering.

The census everyone will take in 2020 is a much shorter form — only 10 questions — and the categories about income only ask for a broad assessment, officials say. Additionally, federal law prevents the U.S. Census Bureau from revealing any identifying information about any respondent.

Local officials hope that information will assuage those concerns and encourage better rates of participation.

“I’ve already had people calling me saying, ‘I don’t like some of these questions,’” says Mark Culver, Houston County Commission chairman. “We understand that, but understand that these things are not an overreach by the government. We just need you to be counted.”

“As far as the census, this only comes around every 10 years. What goes on now is gonna affect us for 10 years down the road,” adds Alabama House District 87 Rep. Jeff Sorrells. “A lot of people may not want to fill this out and think that someone’s trying to pry in on them, but this is for the Wiregrass and for the future."

U.S. Census at a Glance

Who: All people residing in the United States, U.S. government employees (military and civilian) and their dependents living abroad are counted in the census.

What: Since 1790, thanks to a requirement in the U.S. Constitution, Congress has conducted a census every 10 years to determine how many people live in the country overall and in each state.

Why: The census has always determined each state’s representation in Congress, specifically how many people it can send to the U.S. House of Representatives. This, in turn, constitutes each state’s vote total in the Electoral College — which determines the winner of presidential elections.

Originally the census also helped determine each state’s share of the debt the country accrued during the Revolutionary War, but secondary purposes of the census have changed throughout history. After a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, officials use census data to create the outlines of federal legislative districts in an effort to ensure each member of the U.S. House of Representatives serves about the same number of people. Subsequently, state and local legislative districts have followed suit in that endeavor.

In addition to representation, today’s census data, like population and income levels, factor into the amount of federal funding each state, county, and community receives for at least 132 programs. These include Medicaid, highway projects, special education programs, Title I education grants, Head Start, Early Head Start, and Section 8 housing. Following the 2010 census, for example, Alabama received about $8 billion per year in federal funding for these programs — equating to about $1,600 per counted resident.

“In federal funding, the money follows the numbers, not the need,” says Jessica James, a U.S. Census Bureau representative. “We want the complete, accurate count.”

When and Where: For the first time in history, residents can answer census questions online beginning sometime in mid-March. The U.S. Census Bureau will also send surveys to physical addresses by early April, which can then be mailed back. Beginning May 1, U.S. Census Bureau employees will go door to door to follow up with those who have not responded online or by mail.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau