The consequences are significant and will stand for a decade.
“So much rests on the shoulders of participating in the census,” said Leesha Faulkner, the city of Tupelo’s liaison for this year’s canvas of the population.
The U.S. Constitution mandates that the census take place every 10 years. It seeks to count every person living in the country, whether a citizen or not.
What’s at stake? A lot.
Take the size of each state’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The 435 seats of the U.S. House of Representatives are divided among the 50 states based on each state’s share of the population.
Some consulting firms have predicted that Mississippi’s delegation size will hold steady, but there’s expectation that Texas, North Carolina and Florida could grow, with Alabama potentially at risk of losing a seat.
The consequences don’t stop with the U.S. Congress. The size and demographics of state legislatures, city council and other local governments will shift in response to population changes.
Many federal dollars are also tied to census counts, including money for infrastructure, healthcare, housing, education, research and emergency assistance.
The data is also heavily used by the private and non-profit sectors to make decisions about business operations, the distribution of grant moneys and related purposes.
“If Mississippians do not respond, then resources may not go where they are needed,” said U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Tupelo, said in a recent statement.
Since at least 2017, Mayor Jason Shelton has emphasized the significance of the upcoming census. In that year, Shelton unveiled a revitalization plan, with a stated goal of reaching a population of 40,000 by this year.
“Realistically, it’s probably not going to happen,” Shelton said at the time. “But we want to be ambitious and tie everything together.”
With Shelton and some of his key administrative figures coming into office in 2013, this year’s census will be a first for much of City Hall.
Don Lewis, the city’s chief operations officer, said that when the new census data is released, it will allow Tupelo officials to evaluate recent housing and development policies while planning for the future.
“It’s coming time to revisit out 10 year plan,” Lewis said.
To aid census efforts, Shelton’s administration has tapped Faulkner, the Oren Dunn Museum curator, as the city’s census coordinator.
While the county itself is administered and conducted by the Census Bureau, Faulkner plans an active outreach effort to ensure that the city’s numbers are as close to a 100 percent population count as possible.
At present, she’s working to name a committee of 12 local citizen volunteers who will form the front lines of her efforts to provide outreach and education about the census. She’s awaiting approval from the Census Bureau before she releases the committee list and ramps up her efforts.
A top priority for Faulkner will be contacting segments of the community that have historically been undercounted. These includes racial minorities, those who don’t speak English well or at all, those who can’t read or write and the homeless.
Faulkner is particularly concerned that the black and Hispanic populations have been undercounted in the city in the past.
Recent estimates by the Census Bureau put Tupelo’s black population at 38 percent of the city, and the Hispanic population at a little over 2 percent.
Personal contact will be key to overcoming barriers and soothing anxieties, Faulkner said.
“This information is not going to be used in any personal way,” she said.
Renters have also posed difficulty for census takers, and Tupelo has a substantial stock of rental properties.
Census data indicates 25 percent of Mississippi’s population is classified as hard to count, though county-level data indicates less difficulties in Northeast Mississippi.
For decades, Tupelo has reliably clocked at least some growth every census, until the 2010 census showed a virtually stagnant population that kickstarted anxiety about the specter of decline.
Over the 30 years from the 1970 census to the 2000, Tupelo grew by about 14,000 people.
But in 2010, census totals put the city’s population at 34,546, an increase of only 335 over the 2000 census. But during that same 10-year period, Lee County’s population grew by almost 10 percent for a total of 82,910.
There is confidence the 2020 census will depict a city buoyed by increasingly vibrant growth. For one thing, a 2012 annexation brought about 3,100 new residents into the city.
The most recent population estimates released by the census bureau put the city of Tupelo’s population at 38,321.
Lewis emphasized that the census will offer a key benchmark against which to measure the Shelton administration’s ambitious and sweeping efforts to tear down blighted properties, especially apartments, and spur the construction of new homes.
“The numbers hopefully will reflect our successes,” Lewis said.
Faulkner also thinks the 2020 census numbers will tell a very different story than 2010.
“I think you’re going to see that it has grown,” Faulkner said.
Most households will receive an invitation in the mail to participate in the census.
In this year’s census, forms do not have to be returned by mail. Instead, residents can submit their census information over the internet as well, using a computer or even a smartphone.
A significant door-to-door effort will still be mounted, however, to reach households that don’t submit census information by mail or electronically.
These direct contact efforts will begin with households that do no otherwise respond by April.
Faulkner encouraged local residents to view the census as a positive aspect of civic involvement, not something dull or intrusive.
“This is something to get excited about,” Faulkner said. “You stand up and you are counted and it means so much.”