With only a month left in 2020, elected officials in Washington will have a lot of ground to cover in the final legislative session of the year in order to ensure that Americans are well-prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
While the lion’s share of the discussion lately has revolved around how Congress will address the economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot forget that this year marked the U.S. Census, which will itself play a major deciding role in how well Americans will be equipped to get out of the pandemic and have a successful ten years before the next Census.
The Census is a key part of the U.S. Constitution, and has the major responsibility of making sure each state is appropriately accounted for and represented in the federal government. It helps to decide how many seats each state holds in the U.S. House of Representatives, and also helps to ensure every state receives the full amount of federal funding it needs to support its communities. An accurate count is necessary to ensure the hard-earned tax dollars North Carolinians are paying to the federal government are coming back to our state in the form of funding for infrastructure, economic and rural development, education, health care, and other programs.
However, this critical once-a-decade process was made much more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic, with things being even more complicated in states like North Carolina that have faced continued risks from intense storms along the coast. With these difficulties, Census workers were not able to do their usual in-person follow-up with people and households who did not submit a response to the Census on their own. Instead, they had to use older government records with questionable accuracy, or rely on conversations with others such as landlords. In states with rural populations that are tougher for officials to reach, this “Nonresponse Follow-up” accounted for a considerable portion of the total responses.
While Census workers usually have around five months to make sure their responses are complete and accurate, they were only given about two and a half months to do so this year, creating a serious risk that states with low Census self-response rates are undercounted. For these states, including North Carolina – which had more than 35 percent of its responses come through Nonresponse Follow-up – the costs of an undercount would be immense.
In North Carolina, for example, we stand to lose just shy of $100 million in education, health care, and jobs program funding from the federal government if our state goes undercounted by even one percent. That is almost $100 million worth of our tax dollars that would be going to another state instead of coming back to help us, simply because we were undercounted in the Census.
The best remedy for this would be to extend the amount of time Census officials have to verify their findings by pushing back the deadline by which they have to report their results. Thankfully, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) has introduced the 2020 Census Deadline Extensions Act, which would do just that. This is a common sense bill that conservatives should support. As of right now, it’s red and rural states like ours that stand the most to lose because we are the most at risk for an undercount.
This bill is a crucial piece of legislation that could make a massive difference for how states like North Carolina are able to approach the next ten years. Now, I hope that our senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, will throw their support behind this bill to make sure that rural communities across the state get their fair share once the Census results are reported.
With such a small amount of time remaining before this session of Congress concludes, it is necessary for legislators to prioritize the issues that will most directly affect each and every American, including the Census. If they don’t, communities who were undercounted will be the ones paying the price, and the entire economy will suffer as a result.
Ben Moss serves in North Carolina's House of Representatives