West Virginia’s response rate to the 2020 census continues to trail a majority of the country, despite the efforts of multiple groups working across the state to get people counted.
Only 53.3% of West Virginians have completed the census, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Only Alaska, Maine, New Mexico and Puerto Rico have a lower participation rate.
If the response rate doesn’t increase, West Virginians have a lot to lose, said Carey Jo Grace, an organizer with Our Future West Virginia who is leading the group’s census campaign.
“West Virginia is one of the states that is most heavily dependent on federal funding, and a lot of that funding — roughly $7 billion or so — is, right off the top, based only on our census data and our population and demographics recorded by the census count,” Grace said. “If we don’t count every person, we lose out on real dollars. There’s a real effect.”
Fewer people counted could mean less money in the state’s school system and for health initiatives. There also could be less money for nonprofits, which also rely on census data for grants to support feeding programs, after-school programs, homeless shelters and more.
“Less counted is less for us, and that is a real risk if we don’t step up,” Grace said. “Also, wouldn’t it be great to show that there are more people here than others think? Because there certainly are.”
As of Friday, Jefferson County had the state’s highest percentage of census participation, with 68.1% of residents there responding. McDowell County, with 22.5% responding, was last in the state.
In McDowell and other rural counties, areas not easily accessible make door-to-door visits difficult, Grace said. Those areas also tend to have limited internet access, which further complicates the effort since this is the first time the census is being conducted mostly online.
Donald Reed, director at the McDowell County Commission on Aging, said organizers in the area are using social media to try to connect to people and educate them on the census.
“A lot of people, even if they don’t have access to regular broadband, they can usually get on social media one way or another, on their phones or something,” Reed said. “We’ve seen some feedback there, but there are probably quite a few people here who haven’t even heard or been contacted for the census.”
Part of that is likely due to COVID-19, which eliminated the opportunity for organizations to conduct door-knocking campaigns, Grace said.
In McDowell County, hundreds of census mailers never made it to residents, as the federal agency used physical addresses — which in many rural communities aren’t used for mail — instead of P.O. boxes.
The Appalachian District of the United States Postal Service responded to concerns about the failed mailings in a letter to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., writing there had been no wrongdoings.
“If the Census sends something incorrectly addressed [using a physical address instead of a P.O. box], the office has no way of knowing who the customer is,” the letter reads. “Census mailings do not contain the citizen’s name, just an address.”
Grace said this issue exists in many of West Virginia’s rural communities. Combined with limited online access and the challenges of the coronavirus, that could mean those areas are drastically undercounted in 2020.
“And absolutely, these are the places we need to count most — our rural communities, our Black and minority communities. Not counting them robs the people there of chances for more opportunity, more investment in their communities,” Grace said.
The census coalition at Our Future — dubbed CountMeInWV — started working before the COVID-19 pandemic to get volunteers settled around the state and educating their respective communities.
Currently, there are 20 fellows doing this, and all had to rework their approaches in March when the pandemic led to statewide shutdowns.
Now, instead of in-person sessions and meetings, Grace said the fellows are working with schools to get information to those registering students. They’re hosting raffles, where people are entered for prizes if they show proof of filling out the census. Some are working at food pantries and food banks, setting up computers if needed so people can fill out the census there. They’re at recovery sessions and health clinics, connecting people to more resources.
“They really are doing a bang-up job,” Grace said. “We couldn’t ask for better given these circumstances, but there’s still a lot to do.”
On top of potential losses in federal funding, West Virginia could lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives if population counts in the 3rd District — which includes the southern coalfields — remain low.
Representation at the state legislative level could also be affected.
“People don’t want that, they want direct representation from people in their area,” Grace said. “In other places, they won’t know the need as well. That, for us, has been a big motivator for some people participating.”
In McDowell, Reed worries what will happen if more people aren’t counted. In 2010, a year where West Virginia had a 59% response rate, McDowell County had the second-lowest participation rate in the state after Pocahontas County, which is also mostly rural and home to many hard-to-count areas.
Reed said he doesn’t know what would have been different in the past 10 years if those rates had been higher, but he suspects things could only have been better for struggling counties like McDowell. Now, he wants to ensure the next 10 years aren’t the same.
“The local economy would have had more money to go around, and I hate to say this, but it does all tie back to money. We could have seen better roads, better services for our people, maybe even a better reputation,” Reed said. “I am concerned what the census count will do to our funding for the next 10 years. This is not an issue that next year we can do better at or fix. This is our one opportunity for a decade. The magnitude of getting that correct count — I can’t put it into words.”
To fill out the census, visit https://2020census.gov/ or call 844-330-2020 to respond by phone. The deadline to respond is Oct. 31, 2020.