ATLANTA — The decennial U.S. Census will determine where more than a trillion dollars of federal funding is doled out across the nation within the next decade and rural communities are at risk of losing their share.
The U.S. Census will deploy a new online count system for the first time, meaning Georgia communities that fall through the cracks on internet coverage are at risk of an undercount.
While the census bureau has made plans to send out paper questionnaires to households in areas with low internet subscription rates, voting rights advocates worry the pattern of historically undercounting communities of color will only get worse.
More than 300 federal programs use the results of the census to dole out funds for schools, food assistance, housing assistance, public health initiatives, infrastructure maintenance such as updated roads and countless other needs.
For every Georgian missed in the count, the state could lose thousands of dollars in funding — and minority communities could be hit the hardest.
The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based social policy think tank predicted one of the largest undercounts this year — particularly in states with large populations of historically undercounted minorities such as black and hispanic communities.
These “hard to count” communities make up nearly half of Georgia’s population.
Fair Count, an Atlanta-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, is determined to make sure residents are counted and the Peach State gets the dollars it deserves.
Rebecca DeHart, chief executive officer of the organization, said the new online aspect of the census process along with Congress’ lack of budget decisions has created a black hole of assistance for communities with little access to resources.
Thousands of Census Bureau questionnaire assistance centers that have been around to help residents in being counted since 2010 aren’t up and running, DeHart said, and new centers that were supposed to be opening up across Georgia have not.
Fair Count has been traveling through rural Georgia, delivering iPads and Chromebooks and installing wifi hotspots in churches, barbershops and community centers.
“We're very concerned about the lack of internet access in so many different places in Georgia,” DeHart said, “or even if there is limited access, it's not either accessible or affordable by many people. And so we're really trying to think out of the box on how to bring the internet to them.”
Historically, wealthier, white communities are fully counted or even over-counted in census data, funneling more funding into communities that serve little to no low-income households.
What’s at stake for rural communities if they’re not counted, DeHart said, is “money, money, money.”
Georgia is facing a rural health crisis, hospitals shuttering left and right. Public schools in areas that serve minorities and suffer from high poverty rates are starved for additional funding — lending to overcrowded classrooms and declining test scores.
“If a community is already suffering — like a lot of communities in rural Georgia — who are struggling to see what that future is going to look like,” she said, “it will be that much more bleak if they don't get the funding they deserve, for their roads, for their schools, for their health care, for environmental cleanup, for the Head Start program, for the free and reduced lunch program.”
Fair Count works with local elected officials and municipalities to stress a message of urgency when it comes to a community being accurately counted for the census.
“Local elected officials know what's at stake, because those county commissioners, they're the ones that received the calls of all the needs that are in that particular county,” DeHart said, “and they're the ones that see that budget of what they can do to either fix the problem or to have a vision for the future. They know what those funds mean to a community, better than anyone.”
But the organization has another challenge of convincing rural Georgians that the census is not a partisan issue. Although Fair Count was founded by Stacey Abrams, former 2018 Democrat gubernatorial candidate, DeHart — who also served as the former executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia — said their census work is not tied to a political party with Fair Count funded mainly by private donors and foundations.
“Everybody counts the same,” she said, “that’s the whole point of the census.”
But counting every single person in a state with a population of more than 10.6 million people is no small task. A myriad of issues can cause a person to miss the count — including nontraditional living situations such as renting.
The census bureau also practices prison gerrymandering — counting incarcerated populations as part of the communities where they’re held instead of where they are from.
Meeting communities where they are
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the 2010 census over-counted white people while undercounting more than 1.5 million black and Hispanic residents. Further analysis of the 2010 census by the bureau revealed that it undercounted young children in Georgia alone by nearly 55,000.
Black men are the number one undercounted group of all racial and ethnic groups, DeHart said, because of various forms of disenfranchisement.
The organization has a specific program Black Men Count, that seeks to involve black men in the census and promote further civic participation. But engaging minority populations means meeting them where they already are.
Libraries are often the only source of public wifi in rural communities. But when libraries close for the day, a town can potentially go without. Fair Count partners with local leaders and organizations to determine the best local watering holes to install internet and reach the most people.
“There's a lot of infrastructure from really good organizations who do census work in the metro area,” DeHart said, “so what we're really trying to do is fill in the gap in the areas where there is no infrastructure...These are resources we should be putting in for the greater good permanently.”
So far, 29 African Methodist Episcopal churches and other community epicenters have free internet access installed by Fair Count — the organization hopes to have 150 total installed throughout Georgia by April 1, 2020, and will pay for Internet through Dec. 31, 2020. The organization also helps community members access census bureau jobs.
Fair Count seeks to find out “where people congregate and feel safe," DeHart said, and that’s where they put the internet.
Census creating fear
Despite President Donald Trump’s push for its implementation, federal judges have permanently blocked the citizenship question from showing up on the census. However, continued efforts for citizenship information collection by the U.S. Census Bureau has perpetuated fear among noncitizen populations.
Rural Georgia hosts a large Hispanic population that fall into the “hard to count” community classification.
The damage has already been done, DeHart said.
“If there is that distrust already exists, and then you see this big sort of political move to use the data for various purposes, it exacerbates it,” she said. “So what we have to double down on now is that no, your data is safe, it is protected. It is some of the most protected data you know in the nation. That the citizenship question will not be answered. And that actually, it is a disservice to the community if you don't participate.”
Distrust for the census bureau often transcends ethnic groups. Sometimes, DeHart said, residents with criminal records or who are reliant on government assistance programs think participating in the census can put them at risk.
“There is a just a magnitude of stories that people in America live with that make it difficult to have a clear-cut answer on how to answer the census,” DeHart said. “Anytime fear is also put into it, it makes it that much more difficult.”