County News

Rural counties face challenges and high stakes in 2020 census

Cynthia Clark, executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, chuckles while addressing the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Steering Committee.
Cara Brumfield, senior policy analyst Georgetown University Center on Poverty and Inequality, is in the background. Photo by Leon Lawrence III

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More than 60 federal programs - totaling roughly $30 billion - driven by census data are exclusively for rural areas.

With nearly $900 billion in annual federal funding at stake, an accurate census is crucial to any county. But with harder to reach residents and limited internet connectivity — when the Census Bureau wants to prioritize online responses — rural counties face additional challenges to getting a complete count. More than 60 programs — totalling roughly $30 billion —  driven by census data are exclusively for rural areas.

“Accurate information is needed to make sound decisions about these programs,” said Cara Brumfield, senior policy analyst Georgetown University Center on Poverty and Inequality.

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SNAP, for instance, allocates $71 billion per year based on census data.

“If the census data are inaccurate because certain groups are undercounted, especially if groups that are concentrated in certain communities are undercounted, that’s going to put those communities at a disadvantage,” she said. “They’re not going to get their fair share of federal dollars.”

Census data determine regional eligibility for programs including rental assistance programs, loan programs, direct payments and the National School Lunch program.

“So much money is on the line and now we understand the characteristics of our communities and what they need all depends on how accurate this data is,” Brumfield said.

The Census Bureau is aiming for 55 percent of residents to reply to the census online, but Brumfield said rural areas, particularly without reliable internet will be mailed traditional census forms.


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