During each U.S. Census count, West Virginians may be undercounted in the many rural pockets throughout the state.
That can affect billions of dollars in funding for everything from social welfare programs to public transportation and infrastructure, said Jennifer Wells, executive director of the Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, at a press conference to herald the release of the annual report on child well-being from West Virginia Kids Count.
Annually, the state data book provides information on the well-being of West Virginia’s children, this year with more county-level statistics detailing more state-specific factors than ever before. Much of this information, though, is reliant on the most recent numbers available from the U.S. Census Bureau, said Tricia Kingery, executive director of West Virginia Kids County.
As 2020 approaches, Wells’ concerns for under-counts in the state, and the effect it could have on West Virginia's children, are growing: the Census Bureau is changing the way it does its count, for the first time emphasizing digital filings and responses instead of physical paperwork, collected through door-to-door visits.
“In our rural, already hard-to-count areas, we know we have issues with broadband, with elderly populations that may not be aware this is how things are going to be done,” Wells said. “It’s worrying us -- the way West Virginia is living, surviving, may be a reason there isn’t accurate information recorded on us, and that information will influence policy and spending here for the next decade, maybe more.”
The Healthy Kids and Families Coalition is making the 2020 Census count its main mission for the next year and a half. Through her organization, Wells wants to ensure that residents in the hard-to-count counties -- namely the Southern Coalfields (Boone, Lincoln, Logan, Mingo, McDowell and Wyoming counties) as well as rural pockets in dozens of other counties throughout the state -- are represented as well as they can be, so they can get the support and assistance they need through policy, as well as funding.
“There are tons -- tons -- of resources we may be missing out on, and issues we may be misinformed about because of inaccurate counts here,” Wells said. “There’s hope out there that we can better things for our state, for our children, but the Census is at the base of all of that.”
It’s a vicious cycle, she said.
Part of the fight in getting better broadband for people in some of these areas, for example, could rely on information they give the Census. If they’re unable to fill out the Census because of shoddy broadband connectivity, though, that may never be recorded and it could take even longer for them to access resources for improvements.
There are other consequences, too.
Wells cited the ongoing fight at the state Capitol for public education, as well as bills that are introduced during legislative sessions each year that can affect anything from child enrollment in health insurance to the battle against food insecurity.
“The data that they use to draft these measures, rationalize them to constituents and themselves, is based on the numbers we get from the Census, or on studies from policy groups that also use those same numbers,” Wells said.
Andrew Weber, board president of West Virginia KIDS COUNT and administrator at Charleston Area Medical Center Women and Childrens, said the KIDS COUNT state data book is used by those in the state’s medical community to identify trends, and in turn apply for grants or offer support to programs to meet growing needs.
“It helps guide us in our work, which is to meet the community’s needs first and foremost,” Weber said. “The data book is a source of critical facts for our partners, parents and the state’s children. Ultimately, most of that comes down to information from the Census.”
With the potential for inaccurate counts, there’s a risk that some trends and problems are not going to be addressed until it’s too late.
This is especially true, Wells said, for minority children and families in the state, as well as women-lead homes (historically under-counted by the census) and children living in immigrant families -- something exacerbated by the addition of a question in the 2020 Census that will ask respondents of their citizenship status.
While West Virginia has a relatively small immigrant population compared to other states, it’s still something on Wells’ mind.
“It’s troublesome that we’re going to risk getting inaccurate counts, of scaring people out of participating in something this crucial, for no reason,” Wells said. “When you look at what we could stand to lose, it’s immoral. That’s it.”
Wells and Kingery, working together through their respective organizations in addition to several other advocacy groups focused on child well-being and health in the state, are hoping to demystify the Census for people in the regions most at-risk for under-counting in 2020.
Through community partnerships, they will be looking at educating as much as they can on why the Census matters, and how it affects day-to-day lives for individuals.
“That’s something that people don’t get,” Wells said. “When you take the bus, or you’re allocated [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits, or you enroll your kid in HeadStart, or use anything else that may rely on grant funding, you’re probably able to because of something included in the Census.”
Kingery said half the fight is making people familiar with the Census, and making sure it’s not something that’s scary or unfamiliar to people. She sees her organization working in libraries and community centers, through local partners, to ensure they’re reaching as many people as possible.
“The way you do something like this in West Virginia is through relationships. You can’t send out ads and assume people will be on board,” Kingery said. “You have to meet people where they are, with others they’re familiar with. We need to empower people at the local level through building relationships, and go from there.”