How the 2020 census will put millions of dollars in the hands of local communities


South Carolina’s 2020 census response rate sits at 60.2 percent, below the national average of 66.3 percent. Those non-responders could cost their communities a small fortune.

More than $675 billion in federal funds are up for grabs every year for the next 10 years, and population statistics gathered from the U.S. Census determines where that money goes.

“It’s everything from major highway planning and job training programs to wildlife grants in the rural areas, which might not be top-of-mind for many but are critically important,” said Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments regional strategist Daniel Brock. “The importance of an accurate count cannot be overstated.”

Currently, the Trump administration is appealing a federal judge’s decision that extends the federal Census Bureau’s time to complete the national census through October.

Daniel Brock said many programs  critical to local communities are are funded according to census figures | Photo by Rūta Smith

More than the funding, representation in Congress is also based on population, so an accurate count is important at a much larger scale for our democracy. With a lower response rate, funding and representation will work off the assumption that fewer people make their home here.

“That means that the money will not cover as many people as it needs to cover,” said Marilyn Stephens, assistant regional census manager for the Atlanta Region Census Bureau. “Infrastructure, health care, flu shots — it’s key to having the resources we need for the next 10 years.”

Everyday programs like those dealing with education, social services like SNAP and WIC, affordable housing, senior services, services for veterans and massive community development block grants are just a few on a very long list of federally funded programs dependent on the count of this year’s census.

“Infrastructure, health care, flu shots — it’s key to having the resources we need for the next 10 years.”

—Marilyn Stephens, assistant regional census manager for the Atlanta Region Census Bureau

In 2015, highway planning and construction accounted for $38.48 billion in federal funding in the U.S. School lunch programs were given $18.92 billion, and historic preservation measured in at $34.17 million. Even hurricane relief funding uses population measurements gathered from the U.S. census — Hurricane Sandy recovery grants totaled $3.35 billion in 2015.

And while vaccines for the rapidly approaching flu season are often available free of charge, the supplies are federally funded. The money has to come from somewhere, and the determining factor is, you guessed it, population data. Other programs that can go unnoticed, like unemployment benefits ($3.12 billion in 2015), are funded based on population and have been a critical lifeline through the pandemic.

Going through changes

Even before pandemic-induced upheaval, the Charleston area experienced massive change since the last census in 2010. 

“The region has grown and matured exponentially,” Brock said. “You’re looking at greater than 20 percent population growth, which is three times the national average, major manufacturing and employment advances, a booming port and the tourism industry on warp speed. Basically, the Charleston region went international in the last decade.”

The population explosion will make it even more important, and difficult, to get an accurate count this year, as the influx of new Charlestonians is showing no signs of slowing.

“You’re looking at greater than 20 percent population growth, which is three times the national average, major manufacturing and employment advances, a booming port and the tourism industry on
warp speed.”

— Daniel Brock, Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments regional strategist

Three South Carolina municipalities found themselves in the top 100 in the nation for population growth since the last census in 2010.

Mount Pleasant has posted the nation’s 12th-highest growth rate over that time, swelling from 68,360 in 2010 to 91,684 last year, according to census estimates — a 34.1 percent increase. Greenville is ranked No. 70, growing by 19.2 percent, and North Charleston comes in at No. 88 with 18.2 percent growth. The city of Charleston has the nation’s 138th-highest growth rate, with 14.3 percent growth over the previous nine years.

Despite the ever-growing numbers, every individual reached makes a big impact.

“That’s what this is all about,” Stephens said, “getting every resident to understand that the programs that are important to you are tied to these census numbers. This is how America knows what Americans need.”

Marilyn Stephens | Provided

Not only have the numbers grown, so too have those the numbers represent in the Charleston area.

“A lot happens in a decade,” Stephens explained. “We have a millennial population that’s 18-34. Ten years ago, some of them were 8 years old, so chances are this is the first time many folks have responded to a census on their own, and in 2020 of all years.”

Logistical challenges of the count aside, census takers can also hit historical and cultural roadblocks that can lead to lower response rate.

“You look at the demographics of the nation, and in South Carolina, a large percentage of it is minorities that have a historical distrust of a government that abused them,” Stephens said. “They feel disenfranchised and concerned about their information being used in an adverse manner.

“In many minority households, at the turn of the century, the early parts of the U.S. census, the children were told to hide so the census workers wouldn’t know how many people were there,” she explained. “A lot of that has been handed down from generation to generation.”

That apparent systemic aversion to the count, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic could be one leading cause of the challenges that have led to South Carolina’s low response rate.

Knocking on doors

“But, despite all of that, all the hard work of the elected officials, the community organizations, business leaders and more to get the word out and talk about how important the census is,” Stephens said, “I believe the areas have done a terrific job.”

Those tasked with bumping up the numbers have had to get creative this year, as the census itself looks very different from 10 years ago.

“The only way to respond in 2010 was by mail,” Stephens said. “Most people don’t remember this, but in 2000, there was an internet option, but the internet was so new, we didn’t publicize it as an option. But, this is the first census where we offered three options to self-respond: online, by phone or by mail.”

Despite the struggles, boosting census responses is an all-hands effort for local governments. North Charleston currently sits at a 53.3 percent response rate, compared to neighboring Charleston’s 64.1 percent.

“Everywhere from the mayor down, we’ve pushed pretty hard on it,” said Ryan Johnson, who runs public relations and economic development for the city of North Charleston. “The mayor has done news pieces on it, we’ve done a lot of social media work and we’ve had census folks at the local farmer’s market.”

A lack of person-to-person contact has made participation difficult in Charleston County, despite the vast majority of responders using the online option. More than half of Charleston County’s 61.1 percent of self-responders filled out the 2020 census online. 

“We are obviously constrained with public events, so it’s hard to get the word out that way,” Johnson said. “But, we are using any kind of avenue that’s available right now. It’s just difficult when we are so heavily relying on digital, considering the current environment.” 

As limited as they have been, creativity seems to have been sparked by the constraints. On Twitter, North Charleston has been sharing off-the-wall messages promoting the census throughout September.

“Not recommended: climbing on icebergs. Recommended: completing the census,” one Tweet read.

The city’s social media outreach certainly grabs attention. But will it convert to dollars and political clout for North Charleston’s communities?

We’ll know in a few months when census officials report back. 

If you haven’t responded to the 2020 U.S. census yet, it may not be too late. Find out more information at my2020census.gov.

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