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In Need Of More Rural Census Responses, Community Leaders See Few Options During Pandemic

Seth Bodine / KOSU
A census banner in Yale, Oklahoma.

The U.S. Census efforts have been interrupted by COVID-19, forcing the Bureau to push back deadlines and adjust to the pandemic. That's left rural community leaders struggling to adapt.

Philip Kelly says there’s always something that needs to be fixed in Yale, Oklahoma. 

As both the police chief and interim city manager of the town of about 1,300, he can point out all the projects in town: from tearing down the crumbling century-old buildings to improving the sidewalks and curbs on the main road. Sometimes, the amount of fixes needed can be overwhelming.

“It seems like every time we get to do a project, a water line breaks or sewer line breaks, or we have an electrical issue that we have to leave what we were going to do and then go fix that,” Kelly says. “It's like, everything around here is becoming an emergency.” 

Alongside balancing his roles as police chief and city manager, Kelly is also on a county committee that aims to get as many people as possible to respond to the 2020 census. It’s important to him, he says, because it helps with grant applications and state funding. But, the amount of people in Yale who filled out their census on their own is lower this year — about 45% compared to 57% in 2010. Kelly says he only has one guess as to why. 

“I don't understand other than it's COVID-19 related,” Kelly says. 

Residents in Yale had a variety of reasons why they haven’t responded. Belinda Dawson says she didn’t take the time to fill it out. Gary Grimm, on the other hand, had another reason. 

“I think that's the way the government is trying to keep track of you, and I just don't think they need to know everything I do,” Grimm says. 

The answer for the low self-response rate is complicated. Steven Romalewski, who oversees the Census Hard to Count Mapat the City University of New York, says there are historically hard to count communities, like non-English speakers, low-income households and people without internet access. 

The U.S. Census Bureau paused much of its in-person counting earlier this Spring. So, he says some people may not be aware that the census is still happening and makes rural engagement efforts more difficult.

“It is likely much harder for census stakeholders, community groups, business groups, religious organizations who are trying to get the word out about the census,” Romalewski says. 

A matter of funding 

The city of Yale isn’t the only town in Oklahoma that has been lagging behind in response rates. Oklahoma ranks 42 in self-response rates, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The nonprofit Housing Assistance Council reports that rural and small towns had a response rate of 53% as of May, compared to 66% in suburbs. The lag has all sorts of groups worried, and a low response could cost states like Oklahoma millions of dollars.

Josh McGoldrick, the chief of staff and general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, estimates for every person that does not fill out the census, the state loses $1,675 each year in federal funding.

Credit Seth Bodine / KOSU
Paula Dennison, Stillwater assistant city manager, stands behind a "pop-up city hall" advertising the 2020 census. Dennison says the city planned to use the booth at events, but the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted those plans.

How federal funding is informed by census data is complicated. Andrew Reamer, a public policy research professor at George Washington University, says 316 federal programs rely on data derived from the census to allocate some or all of its funding — about $1.5 trillion in 2017. Of the programs informed by census data,55 are specifically targeted for rural communities, which totaled $30.7 billion in 2016. These programs include grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help rural communities with water and waste projects, for example. 

Reamer says census data is used to determine what areas are rural and urban, which determines the eligibility of cities for certain programs. 

“Data from the census are used for many programs to determine eligibility,” Reamer says. “In other words, can you get a slice of the pie? And then if you're eligible, how much you get.”

For cities like Stillwater, the classification matters. Paula Dennison, Stillwater’s assistant city manager, says the city is categorized as a small city when they apply for Federal Community Block Grant funds, based on 2010 census data — which makes them compete with other cities between 15,000-50,000 people. Being counted as a population of more than 50,000 could mean that the city would qualify for more than $500,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds by next year. 

“Right now, under small cities, it's barely over $100,000,” Dennison says. “So there's a big difference in how much money we can get through grants into the city.” 

Pandemic disruptions

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Dennison says the city was using what she calls a “pop-up city hall,” a cart similar to a hotdog stand with a big umbrella with information about the census and Ipads to fill out the questionnaire. But since the pandemic, the city has had to adapt engagement efforts, Dennison says. 

The Stillwater library is now loaning Ipads to community groups, so people can fill out the questionnaires. Dennison also says social media posts have been helpful. 

“Social media, that is just a godsend in the time of a pandemic like we're in now,” Dennison says. 

COVID-19 has also affected Yale’s plans to get people to fill out the form. Miranda Brown, who works at the town’s public library says they were in the early stages of figuring out how to help people fill out census forms when they had to shut down. Instead, they had to rely on their website, and now that the library has reopened, posters about the census.

Kelly says there’s not a ton of options left other than advertising on Facebook and in the local newspaper, but he still believes there’s a lot at stake. 

“Because otherwise the state's going to be losing a lot of money for education, roads, just everything,” Kelly says. 

The Census Bureau is starting to knock on doors in certain areas of Oklahoma and in other states, and the deadline for self-response has been extended.

Seth Bodine was KOSU's agriculture and rural issues reporter from June 2020 to February 2022.
Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.
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