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The count continues: How COVID-19 has complicated Mississippi's census effort

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FILE - this April 5, 2020 file photo, shows An envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit.

TUPELO • A first-in-a-century global pandemic event is colliding with the nation’s once-a-decade population count.

Even under the best of times, there are challenges that obstruct efforts to comprehensively count every person living in the United States.

“It’s a real odd situation of how important it is to so many Mississippians, and it’s so difficult to get everyone up to speed on how important it is to take responsibility for your own count,” said Giles Ward, a former state senator from Louisville leading the state’s Complete Count Committee.

And these are not the best of times.

Mississippi’s first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was identified in mid-March, right after many households began to receive postcards from the U.S. Census Bureau and local communities were ramping up education and awareness efforts about the census.

“It kind of broke the momentum right at a critical time for the plan that had been laid out for canvassing and getting the most respondents,” Ward said about the impact of COVID-19.

For some households, pandemic lockdowns may have spurred quicker action on the census. For the first time, the census has invited residents to respond by the internet, and COVID-19 restrictions left some people at home with more time available.

However, some populations are particularly difficult to count, including the transient, the impoverished and immigrants.

Earlier this year, community-level discussions about the census focused on outreach efforts involving those communities.

And it’s that kind of outreach that is now imperiled by COVID-19. Several local groups doing census outreach work – including one involving Tupelo City Hall leadership – stopped meeting amid the pandemic.

Other efforts – including a possible partnership were the Lee County Library – became totally unfeasible because of extended closures.

“Its unquestionable that it’s more difficult than normal,” Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton said about outreach.

The U.S. Census Bureau has also revised its own operations. Under normal circumstances, there would be a period of time allowing for self-responses. After that, door-to-door knocking by census workers called enumerators has been a key component of the effort to comprehensively count everyone.

Amid social-distancing measures, however, the Census Bureau delayed its door knocking program and has extended the time for online self-response into August.

But the count continues.

Field operations resumed this month in some states, including Mississippi. Anyone who still has the census invitation postcard, with an ID number tied to the physical address, can still complete the census online.

As of Friday, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that just over 55 percent of households in Mississippi have thus far completed a census form. In 2010, the state had a total response rate of about 61 percent.

With months to go for the process to play out, Ward still hopes that, despite disruptions, the state’s residents will show a good response rate.

“I’m very optimistic that we will surpass the participation in the census that we experienced back in 2010,” Ward said. “I would love to think it would be significantly higher.”

Throughout much of Northeast Mississippi, the response rates are running just a little bit over the statewide number. Union County leads the region, with a 61 percent response rate. Lee County is just behind, at 60 percent. Alcorn, Chickasaw, Clay, Itawamba, Marshall and Pontotoc counties all have response rates that slightly exceed the statewide rate.

Calhoun County, however, has only a 46 percent response rate, and Lafayette County only a 46 percent response rate. Oktibbeha County has a 48 percent response rate.

And the numbers aren’t just about bragging rights. There is money on the line. Big money.

“It’s important to us because we need to have our fair share of grant money that’s coming down the pike,” said Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of the non-profit CREATE Foundation.

Every year, federal money flows to states, local governments and other entities, and much of it is based on the census population data. The numbers are annually adjusted according to estimates using birth and death data, but the decennial census count provides a baseline.

Here are a few of the ways federal money is distributed using census data:

  • The Medicaid reimbursement rate is calculated using a formula that involves per-capita income data from the census.
  • Other federal programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, use census data to calculate the matching rate for state dollars.
  • The federal Highway Planning and Construction Program allocates money for the planning, construction and maintenances of highways and bridges based on population data and on the classification of an area as urban or rural.
  • Various Department of Education programs rely on census numbers to allocate money.
  • Other programs reliant on census data include the National School Lunch Program, the Pell Grant Program, Section 8 housing vouchers, unemployment insurance and a host of other, specially targeted grants.
  • A state’s number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives is also tied to the census numbers.

“We need to do everything in our power to encourage our fellow Mississippians to participate in the census because there is no doubt that long term federal funds associated with specific programs are dependent on the number of people, not that live in your state, but the number of people that are counted during the census,” said Gov. Tate Reeves on Friday. “So I strongly encourage our fellow Mississippians to go online to take the necessary steps to participate because that is critically important to Mississippi long term.”

Academic researchers, journalists, businesses and non-profits also use census data in various way.

The CREATE Foundation, for example, relies on the demographic data to get an accurate idea of the conditions in the counties it serves.

“The census is important to us because it gives us more comprehensive and deeper data on areas that we look at, like education,” Whitfield said.

With the expansive impact of the census, Shelton agreed that the nation’s once-a-decade count must remain a priority.

“As far as the importance of the census,” Shelton said, “it can’t be overstated.”

Taylor Vance contributed reporting.

Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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