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Time to be Counted: 2020 census rolls out

Officials hope to avoid another Missouri undercount

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A 10-question form to be released to the public this month will determine the distribution of $675 billion by the federal government.

The U.S. census – a decennial count of the nation’s population as mandated by the Constitution – will start showing up in people’s mailboxes March 12-20 and for the first time online. U.S. Census Bureau officials say the form should take less than 10 minutes to complete.

While it’s legally required to participate, there is a major financial incentive as the once-a-decade population count determines how much state and local governments get in federal funding, and the census determines voting district boundaries, Electoral College votes and the number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The official Census Day is April 1, but the enumeration process takes months to complete. For households that don’t fill out the form in March, census takers will follow up with door-to-door visits by May and continue through August, said Jason Ray, executive director of Southwest Missouri Council of Governments. The Springfield-based organization helps coordinate the census within its 10-county service area.

“It’s enshrined in the Constitution. It comes before the Bill of Rights,” Ray said. “It’s really the basis of our representative democracy.”

Ray said the data is collected for the purpose of compiling demographics. That’s a big appeal to businesses, be it manufacturers, retailers or restaurants, he added.

“Most businesses are looking for numbers – either rooftops or number of people,” he said, adding public utilities also study the data to be sure its services are keeping up with public demand.

While the decennial census targets everyone, the Census Bureau specifically takes aim on businesses with its economic census. It provides a detailed profile of the U.S. economy, serving as an extensive collection of data related to business activity, according to the Census Bureau website. The bureau conducts that census every five years, with the next scheduled for 2022.

Depending on data
Ray said a Missouri 2020 Complete Count Committee was assembled last year to ease the completion process. Nearly 20 businesspeople serve on the statewide committee, Ray said, chaired by former Branson Mayor Karen Best. They represent government, businesses, nonprofits and community groups.

One of those committee members is Heather Hardinger, who said Best encouraged her to apply. As director of workforce strategy and programs for the Taney County Partnership economic development agency, Hardinger said she regularly depends on census data for work.

“Any data we use now is based on the data we received in 2010,” she said. “This data will impact new and future development in the area.”

Companies, such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods – both long desired in the Ozarks, she said – utilize census data to choose expansion sites.

“Data from the census is super useful to many aspects of business,” she said, noting her organization also uses JobsEQ, a software program that allows access to labor market data.

The labor market and population count are important to prospective businesses and those looking to relocate, said Jeff Meredith, executive director of The Monett Chamber of Commerce. However, he said the chamber doesn’t use the census data very frequently.

“But the existence of it helps on the back end before we take that phone call,” he said.

Every resident matters when it comes to a census count in a small town like Monett, he added. Monett’s population in 2010 was 8,873, with the Census Bureau estimating its 2018 resident count at 9,118 – a 2.6% increase.

“The count is important because it helps secure dollars,” Meredith said.

Undercount awareness
In the 2010 census, Missouri had a 69.6% participation rate, which Ray said placed the state 24th nationally. Springfield’s rate was almost identical to the state mark. Census officials are hopeful a new digital option will boost those percentages.

For the first time in its history, which spans back to 1790, a digital U.S. census will be available. The online questionnaire is set to go live to the public via My2020Census.gov on March 12, and it will be active through July 31.

Responses by mail or phone are still being accepted, Ray said.

Hardinger said getting greater census participation is vital to avoid an undercount, such as what Missouri experienced in 2010. Due to population loss reflected in the census data, the state lost one congressional district seat, which now sits at eight, she added.

Ray identified segments of the undercount as young children and the Hispanic and black populations. He said the Census Bureau has run television and radio ads since January as part of its marketing push. The Missouri Legislature allocated roughly $500,000 for census funding, he added.

Ray said it gets costly for Missouri when people don’t submit their information. State officials estimate a loss of $1,300 per person, per year for those not counted in the census.

“For every adult and child that is not counted, $13,000 leaves the state,” he said. “That’s money for roads, hospitals and other services we rely on.”

Time to work
As the census data begins to be collected, hiring events for temporary workers continue locally. The Missouri Job Center has hosted several over the past few months, Ray said, adding the Census Bureau has been building its applicant pool since October. In Greene County, the applicant pool has exceeded 100%, although Taney County is around 81%.

Hardinger said typical seasonal jobs are starting up in Branson, which makes finding an adequate number of census workers in the county more of a challenge. Additionally, the state had a low unemployment rate of 3.5% in January, according to the Missouri Department of Economic Development. That’s a far cry from the state’s 9.3%-9.8% range in 2010.

“These census jobs are good paying jobs, but are temporary,” she said, adding the Missouri Job Center has a recruiter on-site most every day.

To incentivize more applicants, the Census Bureau recently boosted hourly pay, ranging from $17-$23.50 per hour nationwide. In Greene County, the hourly pay is $19-$21 for both office and census taker jobs. Job seekers can apply at the Missouri Job Center or online at 2020Census.gov.

“It’s actually looking pretty good now,” Ray said of the local census worker pool. “We’re not as concerned as we were a couple of months ago.”

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