Counting every resident of the United States of America can seem a mundane and monumental undertaking all at once. Conducted every 10 years, the U.S. Census is a mandate of the Constitution. For rural communities, the scope of the work and its stakes couldn’t be higher.
Why the Census Should Be on Your Rural Radar
The census shapes how power, representation, and resources move throughout our country. To be counted is to claim your share of them. Unfortunately, many people in rural communities too often don’t stand up and make their claim. Rural communities are termed “hard-to-count” or “historically undercounted” by census professionals; this is a characterization rural people share with infants and young children, renters and college students, indigenous and minority communities, and those who are highly mobile or homeless.
Formulas for political representation and government funding are directly influenced by the census count. So too are decisions made later by policymakers and private enterprises, such as where to locate public infrastructure or economic development projects.
“A lot of our rural communities have historically had low response,” said Michelle Elison, a portfolio manager in the National Partnership Program at the U.S. Census Bureau. “In [rural] Eastern Kentucky, our Appalachian counties have had some of the lowest responses, which pains me because these are the counties that need to be counted the most, to make sure that they’re getting the funding that needs to come into their communities.”
Participating in and of itself doesn’t necessarily change the circumstances for those in need of a stronger voice or community resources, but reviewing the list of undercounted groups reveals how low participation poses a risk of reinforcing existing disparities and inequalities. That is a real and relevant concern for many rural constituencies, such as rural kids and schools, for example.
“The largest undercounted age population across America is children. It was estimated in 2010 that over a million children aged zero to five were missed. The second-largest undercounted age population is children age five to nine,” said Elison.
From split households to kinship care by grandparents, which is especially common in rural communities, there are many reasons for undercounting; in cases like these, children are often not being included on households’ census forms when they should be.
According to Elison, school superintendents will tell her they know their enrollment numbers and can see the disparities. But she notes, “[It’s] our Census Bureau numbers that are used to determine the funding for those [childrens’] schools for the next decade. So all the Title I funds that come into schools, it’s based on our numbers.”
How the Census Works – Newly Digital, But Still Door to Door Too
In concept, being counted is easy. Leading up to Census Day, April 1, every person residing in the United States and its territories is invited to complete their census forms. The forms can be filled by hand and returned through the mail, verbally submitted over the phone, or, for the first time ever in 2020, completed online via the U.S. Census Bureau website. It’s a process that shouldn’t take much longer than 10 minutes.
But for census professionals the work is much more involved, starting long before Census Day, and continuing long after. Recognizing that rural people may not have consistent internet access to complete their census forms online, there are practices in place to help the most remote areas participate.
For example, the 2020 count officially started in January, with enumerators heading north to count residents in the remote villages of Toksook Bay, Alaska. As Associated Press reporting from the area notes, even getting census information to the mailboxes and doorsteps of these residents can be a challenge, so in-person outreach — by train, plane and snowmobile — is necessary.
The process will end in very similar fashion, with Census workers going door-to-door throughout the summer, often traveling far off the beaten path to count — the old-fashioned way — all the households that didn’t respond.
“After May 12th, people can still respond but that’s when we start our non-response follow-up operation,” Elison said. “We actually go out knocking on doors. This is very challenging in rural communities; it can be difficult to locate addresses and that presents some challenges. The more people we can get to self-respond the better off we will be.”
Help Wanted, Especially in Rural Areas
It takes a collective national effort to complete the count, and one of the most direct ways to contribute is to take a Census job. With these positions, rural experience and perspectives are highly valued and sought after. Census jobs offer competitive pay, and many are part-time or offer flexible hours.
“We have tons [of jobs], and the economy’s doing pretty good [so] not as many people are looking for jobs like they were last decade,” Elison noted. “We especially want to hire folks in rural communities, people that know the areas, that know their neighbors, that know the roads, to work in these communities.”
Those unable to join the payroll can help by simply spreading the word about the Census to friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors, or getting involved with volunteer efforts to count everyone in a community. These local relationships and connections make it easier to communicate the value of the process and convince people to complete their forms.
Similarly, staying informed and correcting misconceptions is a contribution that shouldn’t go underappreciated in our politically-charged times. The leadup to this latest census has been roiled by political and legal tussling over a potential citizenship question. With the census forms going digital, there are also fears of online misinformation and meddling, similar to those discovered during recent elections.
Among all this turbulence, it’s important to remember the fundamentals. There will not be a citizenship question on the 2020 census forms, and all people living in the United States are meant to complete them, including immigrants and non-citizens. In addition, all the data you provide on your census forms is strictly confidential, with federal law requiring it be protected and used only for purposes of Census Bureau statistical analysis.
As the 2020 Census continues, always seek information from trusted and verified sources, like the official Census website.
Tim Marema and Ralph Jean contributed reporting to this article.