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Arkansas declined to spend money on census, missed over 5% of its residents, report states

by Tess Vrbin | June 27, 2022 at 7:13 a.m.
An envelope containing a 2020 Census form and letter mailed to a U.S. resident is shown in this March 19, 2020, file photo. (AP/Matt Rourke)

Arkansas — along with Florida, Tennessee and Texas — is among the four states that declined to spend money on population counting in 2020 and also significantly undercounted their populations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Natural State missed 5.04%, or more than 150,000 residents, according to the bureau’s Post-Enumeration Survey, a post-mortem assessment of the accuracy of the decennial census.

Broadband internet access and the covid-19 pandemic interfered with census promotion and participation too, meaning state spending would not have entirely curbed undercounts, according to census experts.

The census is important because it determines how much each state will receive of the approximately $1.5 trillion the federal government will distribute in the next decade. Undercounted states risk missing out on their fair shares.

The census also determines each state’s number of representatives in Congress, though Arkansas did not lose a seat after the 2020 Census.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office confirmed in May that the state did not appropriate its own funds to census efforts, but “significant federal dollars were spent in education and marketing efforts.”

Two other states, Mississippi and Illinois, also undercounted their populations. Mississippi allocated $400,000, the least of the 28 states that spent money on census efforts. Illinois spent $30.5 million, the second-most behind California, which spent $187 million.

Eight states overcounted their populations: Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Utah. The overcounts ranged from 1.5% to 6.8%. Ohio was the only one of those states not to direct money toward census efforts.

Local governments and community organizations ran their own census promotion campaigns, but this alone didn’t guarantee an accurate statewide count anywhere, said Rogelio Saenz, a University of Texas-San Antonio professor of demography whose expertise includes minority groups and demographic trends.

“Cities all over the country tried their best, in terms of trying to invest their money to try to get a complete count, but we know that was kind of scattered, [where] some communities did it and some communities didn’t,” Saenz said. “Those scattered kinds of efforts don’t compare to that money and that message coming from the top in the governor’s office.” The Post-Enumeration Survey isn’t perfect, the Census Bureau acknowledges, but it takes steps to minimize the impacts of errors on its estimates. The Bureau only considers a state to be over or undercounted if the margins are significant.

Seventeen states appropriated no money to census efforts and still counted their populations with “no statistically significant net coverage error,” as the Census Bureau phrased the counts that were considered accurate in 36 states.

Census undercounts signal people were not counted, while overcounts suggest they were counted more than once, such as children of divorced parents who share custody or people with vacation homes.

Undercounted groups historically have been racial and ethnic minorities, renters and young children.

Every state has both undercounts and overcounts during census collections, and they occur in different communities even though many of them ultimately cancel each other out on the state level, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census consultant who was staff director of the U.S. House Census Oversight Subcommittee from 1987 to 1994.

“People who are more likely to be missed generally aren’t the same as the people who are likely to be counted twice,” Lowenthal said.

Saenz and Dudley Poston, a sociology professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, calculated that states lose about $3,500 in federal money for every person not counted in the census. By this formula, Arkansas would miss out on $5.25 billion in the next decade, Saenz said.

All but three states — Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas — established Complete Count Committees or commissions to promote 2020 census participation.

State Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, was one of four state legislators on the 30-person Arkansas Complete Count Committee that Hutchinson created via executive order in 2019. He said in an email that the committee discussed the need for state funding, but the Legislature did not seriously consider it. He said he was disappointed but not surprised that Arkansas missed counting so many residents.

“If someone generally doesn’t trust the government, especially the federal government, and either isn’t shown the value of participating in the census or doesn’t believe there’s value in participating, they’re probably not likely to participate,” Leding said.

BENEFITS OF STATE FUNDING

State investment in the census leads to higher rates of self-response, or voluntary participation in the survey so that “no one had to go and knock on the door,” Lowenthal said.

Households who self-respond to the census are counted more accurately, and the use of state funds can help put “trusted messengers out in community groups” to encourage participation, she said.

“Without that effort from the state to boost self-response, it’s possible a higher percentage of households had to be counted during the door-knocking operation, and that problem contributed to the lower level of accuracy,” Lowenthal said.

The City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research keeps an online database of “hard to count” census data and used the 2020 results to map response rates nationwide. According to the database, Central and Northwest Arkansas had self-response rates over 60%, while 23 rural Arkansas counties’ rates were below 50%. Newton and Izard counties were both below 40%.

Arkansas had an overall self-response rate of 57.8% before the Census Bureau conducted its door-knocking operation, according to the data. The national rate was 63.2%.

Both Saenz and Najja Baptist, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, pointed out that five of the six undercounted states are home to growing populations of racial and ethnic minorities.

Baptist has studied political cartography, or the impact of census data on voter turnout, and he suggested that a lack of state-funded census promotion effort might be a form of backhanded voter suppression, since census data determines how legislative districts are drawn and which groups are more likely to hold political power as a result.

“Overcounting is simply a function of a lack of administrative supervision,” Baptist said. “Undercounting is a function of purposely excluding certain areas.” The Census Bureau’s report in May did not break down by demographic traits how good of a job the 2020 census did at the state level, but a national report card released in March showed the Black population in the 2020 census had a net undercount of 3.3%, while it was almost 5% for Hispanics and 5.6% for American Indians and Native Alaskans living on reservations. Those identifying as some other race had a net undercount of 4.3%.

The non-Hispanic white population had a net over-count of 1.6%, and Asians had a net overcount of 2.6%, according to the results.

Lowenthal pointed out that Oklahoma, similar in population and politics to Arkansas, has a large proportion of American Indians on reservations, so the state was at risk of being undercounted. However, it recorded a net accurate count, according to the Census Bureau.

The Oklahoma Legislature did not allocate state funds to census efforts, but the state Department of Commerce set aside $400,000 for a promotion campaign, according to documents from the state’s Complete Count Committee.

Meanwhile in Alabama, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey was a vocal proponent of the census, and the state dedicated $1.24 million to promotion efforts.

“Gov. Ivey was on the airwaves and talking about the census at almost every press conference, about the benefits of the census throughout the whole [collection period], and Alabama to everyone’s surprise didn’t lose a Congressional seat,” Lowenthal said.

OTHER FACTORS

Fort Smith Mayor George McGill, a former state legislator and the Arkansas Complete Count Committee chair, said he does not believe the lack of state funds directed to census promotion played much of a role in the undercount. It’s more difficult for people to promote the census on the ground in a state as rural as Arkansas than in a more urban and populous state, he said.

The onset of the covid-19 pandemic during much of the census collection period in 2020 also contributed to the undercount, McGill said.

“People were reluctant to talk to anyone during the covid crisis, [and] they were very protective of their homes,” he said.

Many rural areas lack high-speed internet, limiting the reach of online census promotion, especially since the pandemic limited in-person interaction, Lowenthal said.

“Without efforts by the state to do outreach in these communities that were more vulnerable to undercounting — because of the digital divide, because of lower-income households and even looking at race and ethnicity — these communities probably didn’t have the support that might have improved the conditions for more accurate counts,” Lowenthal said.

STATE AND NATIONAL FIGURES

Arkansas’ overall population grew from 2010 to 2020, even with the undercount of more than 150,000, according to census data released in August. The state added 95,606 residents in the past decade, climbing from 2,915,918 to 3,011,524.

Without the boost of 105,800 people in Benton and Washington counties, the state would have experienced its first drop in population since the 1960 census.

The Central Arkansas and Jonesboro metropolitan areas also recorded growth, while cities and counties throughout the Delta took some of the largest population hits, according to the 2020 data.

While Florida and Texas saw smaller undercounts than Arkansas — 3.5% and 1.9%, respectively — both states lost seats in Congress while the much less populous Arkansas did not.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota and Rhode Island, overcounts appear to have saved them from losing congressional seats, and New York lost a seat even with its overcount.

Nationwide, the population increased by 7.4% over the past decade, the slowest growth since the 1930s. Arkansas’ rose by 3.3%.

Hutchinson said in May that the census data from the Post-Enumeration Survey could be used to adjust federal program funding. Mc-Gill said he hopes the federal government accounts for the Census Bureau’s reported inaccuracies in its allocations of federal resources.

Regardless of the financial outcomes, the 2020 census yielded several lessons that states could learn and apply in 2030, Lowenthal said.

“Hopefully there will be a recognition in the future for the need to lift up state and local voices to encourage participation in the census, and that will take an investment from the state,” she said.

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