Time Running Out for NC in Census Count

The 2020 Census is nearing a close, with NC lagging in responses. (Image via Getty images.)

By Michael McElroy

September 26, 2020

If you haven’t responded to the 2020 Census, this is the week to do it. NC risks losing funding, political power and more if there’s an undercount.

The 2020 Census is almost over, and North Carolina is running behind. 

This puts our state at a significant risk of being undercounted. Being undercounted would deny North Carolina of the funds and resources it needs to fight the pandemic, recover from the subsequent financial crisis, and build and maintain the bridges, hospitals, schools and other vital infrastructure of our daily lives. 

As The New York Times wrote in an editorial this month, “It’s hard to overstate the importance of the census.”

The Census touches everything. 

It’s used to determine the number of seats a state gets in the US House of Representatives, and how to allocate more than $1.5 trillion that the federal government sends to the states. In North Carolina and other states facing accelerated growth, the data helps leaders chart the best way to prevent swelling populations from overwhelming existing systems. The count also helps determine where child care centers are needed, and where emergency vehicles should route.

An accurate count is essential to these and other things. 

Much of the country is behind in its count, but North Carolina is also behind much of the rest of the country, said Dr. Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center, which is based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“North Carolina had a self-response rate of 62.2% as of September 21,” Tippett said. “This is 2.6% points below where we were in 2010 and 3.8% points below the current national self-response rate.”

NC Risks Funding if Count is Off

Whitney Tucker, a member of a commission appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper to ensure an accurate Census count, said that if those rates continue through the end, the state would likely miss 780,000 residents.

“That means $1.4 billion per year over the next ten years that would not be coming back to our community,” said Tucker, who also serves as the policy director for NC Child, an advocacy group that advocates for the wellbeing of children.

A single person missed accounts for $16,000 over the 10 years, Tucker said.

And that is just part of the story, Tippett said. 

“It’s important to remember that the Census Bureau is also now doing the non-response follow-up operation, where workers go door-to-door to ask non-responding households to complete the census,” she said.

About 30% of NC households have been counted this way, she said. 

“When we add these households plus the households that have self-responded, it means that 92% of NC households have been counted. This is below the national total response rate (>95% now).

“This means that 8% of NC housing units have not been counted — we have about 4.74 million housing units, so that means nearly 400,000 more units need to be counted for a complete 2020 Census.”

New October Deadline? 

This year, the census process has faced a dizzying array of delays and conflicting rulings. The final count was supposed to be finished by the end of July. The pandemic washed that plan away. 

Officials set a new deadline of Oct. 31, but the Trump administration pushed it to this Wednesday, Sept. 30, despite widespread concerns from Census officials and advocates that such a timeframe would not give states enough time to reach everyone.

Though a federal judge on Friday restored the October deadline, giving Census officials hope of breathing room, Trump officials are expected to appeal. 

Anything could still happen, and the count could still end in four days with all those thousands of people uncounted and unaccounted for.

That’s the bad news. The good news? Filling out the Census takes no more than 10 minutes. 

Ten minutes for $14 billion over ten years. 

You can call the Census Bureau at 844-330-2020, or fill out the questionnaire you received in the mail. That was likely some time ago, however, so the easiest way is to fill out the questionnaire online here. 

The census offers its questions in English and 59 other languages. It’s meant to be easy. It is easy.

Though the online availability is part of the process’s ease this year, it also helps explain why so many people are not responding. 

This is the first year the Census is available online, but according to the NC. Counts Coalition, 21% of NC households do not have Internet at home. 

In municipalities where 12% of the households or less lack internet access, the coalition says, there is a census response rate of 71%. In areas where 31% of households lack access, the response rate drops to 53.5%.

COVID-19 Made Count Difficult

The pandemic made this disparity worse. 

“COVID disrupted a lot of the planned in-person census questionnaire assistance,” Tippett said. “This was going to be particularly important in rural and low-internet access areas.”

There is also some concern that people think the process is unsafe, that the federal government can’t be trusted. This distrust is especially high in immigrant communities and among and undocumented residents, who are most certainly meant to be counted.

The Census, however, is perfectly safe,Tucker said.

“Families should feel confident,” she said. “There are laws in place” that protect people’s information, and any Census takers who come to your door will be clearly marked.

“The risk [you may think you are facing] is really in your mind,” she said, “but the detriment of not responding is tangible.”

Even if the Oct. 31 deadline is upheld, the clock continues to tick. And the importance grows. 

“Filling out the Census is the first step to ensuring our communities have what they need,” Tucker said.

While Census workers and other groups work overtime to reach those households that have not responded, NC residents can do their part too, Tucker said. 

“Everyone can call your friends and family, and post on social media to get people to fill out the Census,” she said. There is very little time left.”

But, very little time can still be plenty of time to complete the questionnaire for those with internet access. 

A few clicks, a few questions, a few minutes.

“And just like that,” Tucker said, “you’re finished.”

This post has changed from the original to include Whitney Tucker’s correct title. We regret the editing error.


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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