West Virginia has a lot to lose in an inaccurate U.S. Census tally.
The population count, required every 10 years under the Constitution, will determine how much money the state could receive to help its most vulnerable citizens through programs like food stamps, Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers.
For the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau will do the majority of its data collection through an online questionnaire, which could leave West Virginians living without reliable internet out of the count and the state with less federal dollars.
“The majority of our 15 hard to-count communities in counties in West Virginia are in the southern region and lack broadband,” said Jennifer Wells, executive director for West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. “With the Census going largely online and the somewhat mistrust of the process that people may having lingering in the backs of their minds, we knew we had to have a face-to-face contact with folks.”
Wells is a co-leader of Count Me in WV, a new coalition of nearly 30 organizations focused on using their networks to ensure every state resident is counted when the Census launches April 1.
The group includes health care providers, social workers, nonprofits focused on children and school personnel.
Coalition leaders held a press conference Monday at Covenant House, a day shelter in Charleston, to announce their efforts to count the state’s hardest-to-count populations: seniors, college students, communities of color, families with young children and those living in rural areas.
“The Census and information that is collected is hugely impactful to our everyday life,” Wells said.
The group said the state, which reported a population drop for the last five consecutive years, could miss out on $7 billion in federal funding due to an inaccurate count.
Each missed person in the 2010 Census resulted in a loss of $1,107 in West Virginia, according to the George Washington Institute for Public Policy.
The think tank reported the missed count reduced federal dollars to a handful of programs, including Medicaid, the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program and federal foster care assistance.
The state received $6.7 billion in 2016 in federal funding due to data derived from the 2010 Census. The largest portion of those dollars went to Medicaid.
The 2010 data was used to determine state’s dollar amount in Pell Grants, which is federal money for college students based on financial need. West Virginia received more than $191 million in 2016 for the education program.
Carol Bush Cain, a Census employee based in West Virginia, said college students were under counted in the 2010 data collection, and the federal government identified Morgantown as a hard-to-survey area.
Cain attributed the miss to the short window Census workers had to count students, including those living off campus, from April until the end of the semester in May when many exited the community.
West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission leader Matt Turner said the commission is actively working with the Census Bureau, campuses and student government leaders ahead of the count.
Count Me In WV members will also focus on accurately counting the state’s growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren.
“Our grandparents are in need of being counted here in West Virginia so they can get the funding and the support that they need,” Yvonne Lee, lead social worker at West Virginia State University, said.
The coalition noted they’re still figuring out how to best track the state’s homeless population, including those who do not reside in shelters.
Wells said the coalition hopes to partner with day shelters and hot meal programs to encourage participation.
Census data is also used to determine a state’s number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
A 2017 report from Election Data Services said that if West Virginia’s population continues to shrink, one of the state’s three congressional seats could be lost by 2022. The prediction was based on Census numbers from 2016.
What to know about data collection
State residents should receive a paper mailer in March regarding upcoming Census collection.
While the federal government is pushing online data collection, residents may still opt to request a paper survey or respond by phone.
The Census will consist of 10 questions, which Census officials say should take an average of 10 minutes to complete.
Data is used only for statistical purposes and cannot be accessed by any law enforcement agencies. According to the Census Bureau, the agency adheres to federal security standards for encrypting data received online.
The Census Bureau will never request a Social Security number or bank information.
Ahead of the count, the Census Bureau has faced a number of legal challenges regrading data collection transparency, residency requirements and a citizenship question.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June voted against President Donald Trump’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the Census Bureau in 2017 with claims that the federal government had failed to adequately prepare for the 2020 Census, and the count would lead to a miscount of African Americans and other persons of color. The case was settled earlier this year.
Katonya Hart, a leader in West Virginia’s NAACP chapter, said her organization was committed to removing “the stigma the African-American community feels about the Census.”
“Our local NAACP will do whatever is necessary to make sure each and every person is counted.” Hart said. “You can trust us.”