Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Racial minorities in rural areas are especially likely to be undercounted in the 2020 census

Poverty and lack of internet access make it more likely that people in some rural areas will be undercounted in the 2020 census, according to a report from the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy. Some places and population segments will be especially difficult to count, such as African Americans in the South, Hispanics in the Southwest, Native Americans living on reservations, Alaskan Native Americans, residents of deeply rural Appalachia, and migrant and seasonal farm workers.

Under-reporting can have serious consequences for rural areas, since census numbers determine allocation of seats in the U.S. House and state legislatures, and distribution of federal funding for many programs.

The chief author of the study, William O'Hare, identified 316 counties that had census mail-return rates in 2010 below 72.7 percent, putting them in the bottom 10 percent of counties. "The majority of the population living in hard-to-count counties (71 percent) are in urban areas, but the majority of HTC counties (79 percent) are in rural areas," O'Hare reports.

Studies over the past 50 years show that racial and ethnic minorities have been consistently undercounted, and this is born out in O'Hare's findings: Of the 316 HTC counties, 75 are rural counties where a racial or ethnic minority makes up more than 50 percent of the population. There are 34 black-majority HTC rural counties, mostly in the Deep South, and 29 Hispanic-majority HTC rural counties, mostly in the Southwest. Appalachia, though its population is majority white, also has pockets of HTC counties because of the remoteness of certain areas, the high poverty rate and lack of internet access, according to the report. About 40 percent of people living in poverty in those rural areas don't have internet access.

University of New Hampshire map; click on the image to enlarge it.
The undercount may be exacerbated by recent budget cuts to the Census Bureau and changes in its data collection methods. The 2020 census will rely more on residents to fill out forms online, rather than having people go door to door to collect responses. But 21 percent of rural homes don't have internet service, so they will likely have a lower response rate. The Census Bureau planned to test the new data collection method in rural West Virginia, but had to drop the test because of budget cuts.

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