SC Census Count Lagging, Putting Billions of Dollars at Risk

One of every five people in South Carolina, doesn’t count.

Or at least they haven’t been counted by the U.S. Census, which amounts to much the same thing when it comes to expenditures of federal revenue.

With the sixth-worst response rate in the nation, South Carolina is endangering some of the billions of dollars it receives in federal payouts dependent on once-in-a-decade Census counts. The state received $12.7 billion annually from the federal government in funding determined by the results of the 2010 Census. Meanwhile, Congressional representation is also based on the Census results.

The Political Fight Over the Census

The Census was originally scheduled to wrap up its counting by the end of September and report the results to Congress by December. Counts take place via mail and online, and then with door-to-door canvassing to reach those who remain uncounted. Typically, those wary of government and law enforcement, homeless individuals, immigrants, and some minority groups like African Americans and Native Americans, have been undercounted. Law prohibits the Census Bureau from employing statistical analysis or making estimates of those populations that are uncounted.

The result is a predictable disenfranchising of the very segments of the population that need the most help and leaves disadvantages for states with large low-income and minority populations, like South Carolina.

This year, with the intrusion of COVID-19 and the challenges the pandemic added to follow-up counting by Census staff, the Census postponed its deadline for counting until October 31 and indicated to Congress that it might miss its legally mandated deadline due to extraordinary circumstances. This new deadline would allow for apportionment counts to be delivered to the President by April 30, 2021, and redistricting data to be delivered to the states no later than July 31, 2021. The Census had temporarily suspended activities between March 15th and June 1st. Yet, the Trump Administration overruled the Census Bureau and demanded the count be halted in September and a final, incomplete count be submitted on time.

The Census has always had partisan undertones because undercounted populations like immigrants and minority groups live in more urban states that lean Democratic. Many groups have charged the President with again attempting to politicize the Census. In 2019, he ordered the Census to include a question about ‘legal status’ that was subsequently dismissed by the U. S. Supreme Court. In July, he signed an order barring undocumented immigrants from the count. That issue is also the subject of multiple lawsuits still winding their way through the legal system.

The Count Goes On…for Now

Numerous groups have sued the Administration over the halt of canvassing, and a California court has issued a stay on the matter, requiring the Census Bureau to continue counting. “Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade, which would affect the distribution of federal and state funding, the deployment of services, and the allocation of local resources for a decade,” the judge wrote.

This echoed the point made by South Carolina Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette in her effort to promote cooperation with the Census. “The one thing we have to stress is that the Census only happens once every ten years, so we do not get a second chance,” she said. “We will be living with the consequences of these numbers for the next 10 years, especially when we are making important changes in our state with broadband, roads, schools, and healthcare.”

A coalition of state agencies, local governments, and over 200 not-for-profit organizations are encouraging South Carolinians to respond to the census.

“We believe that every South Carolinian should be recognized, acknowledged, valued, and counted,” said Naomi Lett, President, and CEO of the United Way Association of South Carolina.

“It affects every single person in some way, whether it’s them personally or a family member they love,” Evette added.  Funding for everything that flows from the federal government down to states and local communities is based on census numbers. If the federal government only counts half of all South Carolinians, it will apportion funding based on half our actual population.  Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette says having a complete count has immense fiscal implications.

 “There is $800 billion available to us at the federal level that will come down to our state based on the census numbers,” she said in a Facebook Live discussion. “We use that money for our Pell Grants…we use it for community food programs, we use it for programs for our seniors, for our veterans, for health care providers, for community organizations, for adoption and foster care…our afterschool programs and our early learning programs.” And much more.

Consequently, it is particularly important for children, seniors, low-income families, minority groups and disabled individuals to be fully accounted for. Yet these groups are exactly the people who are most under-reported.

Additionally, Congressional and state legislative districts are apportioned by population.  For a small, growing state like South Carolina, a low count could inhibit the opportunity to gain greater representation in Congress, says John Truluck, director of Dorchester County Economic Development.

“State House and Senate districts and Federal House districts are redrawn based on new population numbers from the census. Higher population numbers could mean more representation in those bodies to get more done for Dorchester,” he said.

Filling Out Census is Simple

How much effort is required to complete the census? About the same effort to post and tag a photo on Instagram. The census has 12 multiple choice questions covering how many people live in your household, their names, sex, age, ethnic origin, and relationships with each other. Even now, anyone who hasn’t completed the Census survey may still do so online.

That’s it.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau’s effort to employ door-to-door canvassing to get the response rate as close to 100% as possible has been stymied. By law, the Census Bureau may only count households that have self-reported or responded to interview questions from a Census employee. It may not use statistical modeling, extrapolation, or even direct visual contact. In other words, a Census taker may see five people living in a home but cannot count them unless they respond to the interview questions.

Census Effect on Health

As an engine for economic development, the Lowcountry Graduate Center encourages all Lowcountry households to complete the census. Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties have better response rates than the state average, but are still all under 50%. Dr. Nancy Muller, director of the Lowcountry Graduate Center and a professor of public health, says this has serious health implications for the area.

“This could affect our ability to tackle the social determinants of health in serving at-risk groups,” she said. “Decreased funding for programs combatting poverty, child and domestic abuse, affordable housing shortages, lack of access to health care, limited transportation options and more have been demonstrated to lead to increased incidence of physical and mental health issues in a community.”

Two graduate programs training professionals to deal with community pathologies partner with the Lowcountry Graduate Center to make classes accessible for students here: South Carolina State University’s MBA program with a healthcare management concentration and University of South Carolina’s MSW health and mental health concentration.