Morgan and Lawrence County residents have completed the 2020 census at rates better than the state and nation, but local leaders want an even higher response a week after the Census Bureau restarted field operations in Alabama.
The census self-response rates were 65.1% in Morgan County and 60.5% in Lawrence County based on data reported as of Monday, while the rates were 57.1% for Alabama and 59% nationwide. Limestone County had a 56% self-response rate.
Alabama's self-response rate — the percentage of households that complete the census online, by phone or by mailing in their paper form — was 62.5% at the end of the 2010 census. The state's participation rate, which adds in people counted by special census bureau methods including counting those in group quarters and door-to-door enumeration — was 72% in 2010.
Morgan County’s rate puts it in fourth place for self-response among Alabama’s 67 counties, according to Commission Chairman Ray Long, and Priceville ranks No. 3 among municipalities in the state.
Still, Long wants an even better participation.
“This is critical for us,” said Long, who appealed in a commission Facebook post last week for residents to participate in the census. The Morgan County Commission has approved spending $20,000 to promote participation.
“We could risk losing a congressional seat,” he said.
The state receives about $13 billion each year in federal funding, and “population drives a lot of budget items in the county and state,” he said. “That’s why it’s so critical we get counted.”
Self-response rates in area cities as of Monday were:
• Athens, 57%.
• Decatur, 64.6%.
• Moulton, 64.2%.
• Hartselle, 71.2%.
• Priceville, 79.4%.
Work left to do
Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling is encouraged by the local census count so far, “but I know we’ll do better.”
Bowling said the census count “is important for funding and representation. I believe the data, based on the increase in enrollment in the school system and housing sales, will clearly reflect Decatur has grown.” he said.
“While we think we can do better than 80% (statewide participation rate), the 80% will put us in a position to keep the congressional seat and the federal funding,” he said.
The 435 seats in the U.S. House are divided among the states based on population. Alabama currently has seven House seats, but if other states gain more population relative to Alabama, they could pick up seats and Alabama lose one. Officials want to avoid losing a congressional seat or federal funding simply because the state's population was undercounted.
Matthew Marques, a planner with the Decatur Planning Department, said the city received a $5,500 state grant that was used for billboard advertising and promotional material on the importance of the census counts and the impact on the Decatur community.
Collin Daly, chairman of the Limestone County Commission, said the county will probably end up spending about $5,000 to promote census participation, targeting areas with low participation. Elkmont, for example, has a 45.1% self-response rate and Ardmore has a 44.6% self-response rate, Census Bureau figures show.
Daly said the census count is important because “money follows the numbers.” The census data have an impact on some 55 different programs, from Section 8 housing to federal money for highway construction, he said.
Local and Census officials agree that the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the population count, and the Census Bureau is asking Congress for 120 additional calendar days to deliver final apportionment counts. Under this plan, the Census Bureau would extend the window for field data collection and self-response to Oct. 31.
“We are keeping in close contact with the U.S. Census Bureau and know that they are monitoring the situation very closely,” said Kenneth Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and chairman of the Alabama Counts 2020 Census Committee. “Right now, there is a proposed extension to the end date from the current date of Aug. 14."
Boswell said census field offices in Alabama reopened May 6 while continuing to follow all current health and safety guidelines. Those offices are in Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, but their operations cover the entire state, he said.
“The resumption of activities will come as part of a phased restart by the Census Bureau in select areas of the country,” Boswell said. “As part of the phased restart of operations, the Census Bureau will first resume the drop-off of 2020 Census invitation packets at front doors of households in areas where mail is received through P.O. boxes.”
Boswell said the Census Bureau started delivering census materials to these households on March 15, but the operation was suspended March 18 due to the pandemic, so many of these households haven’t received an invitation.
“This process requires no face-to-face interaction, as Census workers will simply leave a packet of bagged information on doorsteps,” he said. “Approximately 82,000 Alabama households are included in this process.”
Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks isn’t satisfied with the rate for the Athens area and statewide.
“If we’re not at 70 or 80%, in my opinion we need to be concerned about the potential loss of a delegate and federal funding,” Marks said. “This is a critical issue.”
Marks said he would support pushing back the deadline to October as proposed.
Boswell said that even if there’s a deadline extension, “we want folks to go ahead and self-participate right now. It takes about six minutes to answer the 10 basic questions and the information is secure and protected by strict federal law.”
Boswell said it has never been easier for people to participate on their own, whether online at www.my2020census.gov, over the phone toll-free at 1-844-330-2020 or by returning the paper form.