The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 13 to end the 2020 Census two weeks early. But Orange County officials are optimistic about an accurate count, despite concerns of undercounting due to the pandemic.
The census was originally set to end July 31, but was delayed because of COVID-19. Although the U.S. Census Bureau wanted to collect results until Oct. 31, this Supreme Court ruling requires the census to stop data collection on Oct. 15.
The census determines the allocation of federal funds, gives representation in the statehouse and in Congress and factors into important policy and planning decisions. Each year, North Carolina receives around $16 billion in federal funding from census-guided programs.
“Pretty much everything around us that is impacted by federal funding is also impacted by the census,” Stacey Carless, the executive director of the N.C. Counts Coalition, said.
Renee Price, vice chairperson of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, said she believes they could have used more time to make sure the count was accurate.
Price said she helped bring churches, government departments and community organizations together to ensure a complete count. She said Orange County’s field operation was delayed by the pandemic, which made it harder to reach out to historically undercounted communities.
“This was — I think — a way to say that some people just really don’t count,” Price said.
Price said that distrust of the government can create a barrier to ensuring an accurate count, particularly in Native American, African American and immigrant communities
“So many people just avoid it,” she said.
Jessica Stanford, a demographic analyst for Carolina Demography, said COVID-19 complications and confusion around the early end of the census have especially affected historically undercounted communities. She said these communities include children under five, renters and people aged 18 to 24.
People of color have also had lower response rates. On March 20, 27 percent of residents in the lowest-responding tracts identified as American Indian, Black or Hispanic/Latinx. As of May 17, this proportion had increased to 44 percent.
Stanford said she and other researchers are deeply concerned that the early end of the census will increase distrust in the census. She said this concern began several years prior, with the debate over adding a citizenship question to the process.
“With the confusion around this early deadline, it makes people unsure about how their data is going to be used and if there are political implications behind it,” Stanford said.
However, Stanford said Orange County has done quite well and was the third highest responding county in the state. She said there have been a lot of well-funded efforts from various organizations in Chapel Hill to reach different communities.
As of Oct. 17, Orange County had a self-response rate of 72.9 percent compared to 73 percent in 2010.
“I feel pretty confident about Orange County well representing its various communities,” Stanford said.
Even though the count is over, Carless said it’s important that the reporting deadlines are pushed back.
The N.C. Counts Coalition is currently advocating for a longer reporting deadline to ensure that the Census Bureau has enough time to go through data and turn over the most accurate results possible to the president.
“If they are not pushed back, we’re at an even higher risk of an inaccurate count,” Carless said.
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