Connecting state and local government leaders
Census population count corrections have started to roll out, but officials say the bureau needs to be more transparent about the process as valuable funding opportunities remain on the line.
After the U.S. Census Bureau released its first round of official 2020 population corrections in January, many states and cities still await action on the bulk of their counting issues and the funding shortfalls those mishaps can cause.
Early winners are those areas where the census had clear technical problems — where mapping issues or uncertain boundaries misplaced prisons in Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee, adding their populations incorrectly to nearby areas.
For instance, Whiteville, Tennessee, had almost 2,000 people restored to its count, a 75% increase from the census count of 2,606, after the population of a prison was added back from a nearby area to which it was mistakenly attributed in 2020, according to Timothy Kuhn, director of the Tennessee State Data Center in Knoxville. The update brought the revised population number to more than 4,500.
The boost will help the town with an estimated $167 per person in lost annual state funding that is doled out based on population, or an additional $327,000 a year, according to state data-sharing estimates.
But the biggest cases in the largest cities are still pending, especially affecting areas with larger populations of racial minorities.
The Census Bureau’s new corrections show changes approved under the Count Question Resolution process — known as the CQR — in areas within Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin.
Other changes are still under review, including some in those same states, and also in California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Utah, according to Census Bureau records showing 32 total cases filed so far. Another 23 cases have been filed in a similar program for counts of institutions, such as college dorms and nursing homes, but no results have been published for any of those.
There continues to be confusion in many cases, such as in Yuma County, Arizona. There, early results in the count corrections show the town of Somerton gaining six people.
But the city of Yuma was told only that seven of its 20 challenges were approved, not which cases or how much it would affect the population; the city won’t find that out until 2024, State Demographer Jim Chang said.
That’s typical of other communities with challenges to census counts that have been approved but not yet published, said Connecticut-based census consultant Terri Ann Lowenthal.
“The Census Bureau needs to be more transparent about this,” Lowenthal said. “Localities put a lot of effort into reviewing and compiling evidence about undercounts, and they are extremely frustrated when the response is a resolution letter that gives them an outcome with no explanation.”
The Census Bureau declined to respond on the record but pointed to public documents explaining reasons for withholding details in some previous count reviews: to preserve confidentiality rules for small areas and individual institutions meant to protect privacy.
States and municipalities have until June 30 to submit cases to the CQR program or to another program to review counts of institutions such as prisons and college dorms, called Post-Census Groups Quarters Review. Census takers faced considerable confusion about how to count people in institutions when many students went home, and nursing homes closed to visitors at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020.
The biggest cases in large cities such as Austin, Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Tempe, Arizona, are still pending. Milwaukee is seeking an increase of almost 16,000, which is the bulk of a population decrease of about 18,000 recorded in 2020 compared with 2010.
The city has evidence to support its claim that some housing units were missed, and others were mistakenly listed as vacant, likely because people living there distrusted census takers and did not answer mail and door-to-door follow-ups, said Jordan Primakow, senior government relations manager for Milwaukee.
The city doesn’t expect to succeed completely — the Census Bureau challenge programs don’t include revisiting vacancy decisions — but it’s important to note the reasons for the undercount anyway, Primakow said.
“It is very narrow, the criteria they’re willing to review,” he said.
Primakow added that the undercounting issues are typical of urban areas with large minority populations like Milwaukee, and the Census Bureau encouraged cities to submit information that could help in future counts, even if they can’t be fixed under current guidelines. The Census Bureau acknowledged in a 2022 report that it undercounted Black residents by 3.3% and Latino residents by almost 5% in 2020.
“We’re going to throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks,” he said. “We can’t just keep saying, ‘Hey, sorry, we undercounted minority groups again.’ At some point, we have to do something about it.”
Meanwhile, Tennessee has an online map set up for local governments to use for advice and to check for incorrect boundaries, an issue that affected Cleveland, Tennessee, and other cities in the state.
That could help more places, such as Whiteville, where the changes could have a substantial effect on funding.
“Where it affects a lot of people in one place like that, those are the ones really worth doing,” said Kuhn, of the Tennessee data center.
Other cases resolved in the first round of corrections include Glennville, Georgia, which gained 1,455 people, an increase of 38% from the original 2020 count. The initial count apparently didn’t include a misplaced state prison.
Whitewater, Wisconsin, also got an additional 1,248 people, an 8% increase from the original 2020 count, moving that number from the nearby village of Fontana-on-Geneva Lake. The additional population would have caused problems with political representation: The county would have had to add more representation for the village if the challenge hadn’t succeeded.