Several Kentucky counties are classified as the hardest to track in the nationwide census, with nearly half the residents in certain areas neglecting to mail back questionnaires, according to census data.
That’s a problem for accuracy. It’s also a problem for obtaining vital funding from the federal government, according to Danielle Clore, executive director of the Kentucky Nonprofit Network. Those numbers also are used to determine how many representatives the state has in the U.S. Congress.
Consistent census undercounting led Clore, along with several other Kentucky nonprofit members, to form the Count Me In Kentucky Nonprofit Coalition earlier this year. The coalition advocates for accurate census information by asking Kentucky nonprofits to engage with undercounted populations and encourage them to submit census information come April 2020.
“Nonprofits are a really natural fit for the job,” Clore said. “They come in contact with these hard-to-count folks on a regular basis. They’re seeing them in the course of their work anyway.”
Trust is the key element to encouraging responses, according to Clore. Nonprofits are uniquely positioned to advocate for census participation because the nonprofits are well known in their communities. Those ties are important as the census allows an online response option for the first time in 2020 in addition to paper forms returned by mail.
“(It’s a concern for) someone who is not comfortable getting online, who doesn’t have access to the internet or, quite frankly, doesn’t want to submit their information online,” Clore said. “Nonprofits can be seen as a trusted adviser… Simply saying, ‘hey, have you completed the census?’ might be the push someone needs.”
Clore added that some nonprofits in the coalition have considered providing laptops in their lobbies so Kentuckians without computer access can submit their information in a timely manner.
Several Kentucky nonprofits have joined the coalition, including The Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities, Feeding Kentucky, the Child Care Council of Kentucky and Kentucky Youth Advocates. Clore said that several other nonprofits have pledged to address census undercounting in their communities, even if they have not formally joined the coalition.
When residents go uncounted, the federal government allots fewer funds to state-based programs like Medicaid, Head Start and Title I. Kentucky relies on federal funding more than most other states, according to a 2017 Pew Charitable Trusts study. Every year, Kentucky receives about $15.8 billion in federal funding as a result ofthe state’s 2010 census data.
National worries about census undercounting surfaced recently when the Trump administration announced that a question on citizenship status would be included on the 2020 census. The effort has since been rejected by the Supreme Court. But some activists believe undocumented immigrants in the United States will opt not to fill out the census questionnaire.
Undercounted census populations are incredibly diverse and include children, the elderly, immigrants and individuals in rural communities. About 12,568 children went uncounted in Kentucky’s 2010 census, translating to about $25.4 million lost in federal funds every year since, according to the Count Me In Coalition. The Center on Labor, Human Services and Population reports that each Kentuckian is worth about $2,021 from the federal government per year.
The same report estimates that Kentucky is likely to be undercounted by 0.22 percent or as much as 0.58 percent in 2020. That translates to between $20.2 and $52.78 million in federal funds lost every year until the next census in 2030.
In 2010, only 52.5 percent of residents in one area of Harlan County mailed their questionnaire back, according to census data. In comparison, the average census tract in Kentucky had a response rate between 80-90 percent.
In addition to federal funds, census figures determine how many seats states get in the House of Representatives and the number of Kentucky votes in the electoral college critical to naming a new president. Kentucky’s political representation was adversely affected by the census as recently as 1990, when a perceived population reduction led to the loss of a seat in the House of Representatives. (Kentucky now has six representatives.)
According to Clore, census population data is also important information for business owners deciding where to locate. Inaccurate census data could make the difference between jobs locating in or vacating the state.
Unlike Georgia — another state with consistent census undercounting issues — Kentucky has not appropriated any state funding for census outreach.
“This (census) data is so critically important,” Clore said. “Kentucky’s got some work to do.”
With the Count Me In Coalition, Clore and her fellow members hope to see that work done.