TUNICA Mississippi students soared on kindergarten readiness exams, third-grade reading “gate” tests, graduation rates and reading and math assessments, outperforming the nation. Carey Wright, state Superintendent of Education, said at a Mississippi Delta high school last week that the state could do even more with additional dollars from the federal government. 

Wright spoke to a group of middle and high school students in the Rosa Fort High School gymnasium filled with colorful posters and handmade signs to highlight the 2020 census count and its importance to youth and rural communities across the state, communities deemed “hard to count” populations, or areas likely to not have an accurate count. Other at-risk populations include low-income and black and Native American households.

“These funds are sent to our state to pay for special ed, teacher professional development, technology, student lunch assistance, Head Start, after school programs,” Wright said. “And if they don’t have accurate data then Mississippi doesn’t get accurate dollars sent to us in a timely way.”

Tunica County, similar to most counties in the Delta region, is a hard to count population. Based on the latest census data, it’s estimated that 100 percent of the Tunica population live in hard to count neighborhoods. In Mississippi, 27 percent of people live in hard to count neighborhoods.

In comparison to neighboring states:

  • 15 percent of Alabama residents live in HTC neighborhoods
  • 13 percent of Tennessee residents live in HTC neighborhoods
  • 22 percent of Georgia residents live in HTC neighborhoods

As a result, the Mississippi Department of Education kicked off the U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistics in Schools program here. This program “encourages teachers and adults to teach students why it’s important to respond to the census.” On this tour, Wright visited Tunica and Noxubee counties and hopes to visit Jackson Public Schools, she said. 

The census is a count of every living person in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five United States territories. The Census Bureau conducts the count once every ten years to produce data about people and the economy. Participants can respond to the survey three ways: online, by phone or mail.

Beginning March 12, the census will begin sending out letters to every household.

The data is used to produce data sets to determine how billions of federal dollars are distributed to more than 100 programs like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), National School Lunch Program, and infrastructure, to name a few. 

In addition, data from the census determines the number of congressional seats and the drawing of legislative and congressional districts. Businesses use census data to decide whether to locate to a community.

“Not being counted means you won’t have a (Congressman) Bennie Thompson. They can wipe this district out,” Marilyn Stephens, assistant regional census manager, said to the Tunica County School District. “If the numbers don’t support the need, the need still doesn’t matter.”

Over the next decade, Wright says for every child that is not counted, the state loses an average of nearly $3,000 per student annually. Counties could lose between $5,500 and $1.7 million dollars annually, she added. 

In 2017, Mississippi received $10 billion for 55 federal programs based on 2010 census data, according to a research project from the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy. This program, Counting for Your Dollars 2020, examines the role of the census in distributing money to federal programs. California, ranking No. 1, received $115 billion in 2017.

If the census is so important, state lawmakers and government officials should go beyond the call of duty to ensure an accurate count, attendees voiced at Mississippi Today’s Public Newsroom workshop recently.

“You only hear about the census when it’s time to do it. (The) same way we only hear from elected officials when it’s time to go to the polls … where are they now? … We don’t talk about this in schools. Why isn’t it talked about the way it should be?” an attendee said.

California, for instance, is investing more than $180 million this year to educate the public, especially “Latino communities,” and Texas legislators implemented a similar statewide initiative, Reveal reports.

Administrators and band members sit in the Rosa Fort High School gymnasium during an assembly about the 2020 Census Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

In early February, the Mississippi Legislature passed SB2149, appropriating an additional $400,000 to the Department of Finance and Administration “to enter into contracts for advertising, media, marketing and public relation services for the 2020 census.”

On Thursday morning, Chuck McIntosh, the director of communications for DFA, said the Department’s responsibility is to pay the bills. And to his knowledge, no funds have been dispersed, he said. He went on to say The Focus Group, a Biloxi-based public relations and advertising company, and the Mississippi Complete Count Committee are responsible for advertising the census.

The Mississippi Complete Count Committee, established in 2019 by way of an executive order, is comprised of about twelve members and its primary duty is to ensure “the highest participation rate possible” for the census.

Committee chairman, Giles Ward, a former state lawmaker, said billboards, television and newspaper advertisements are already running. He added, they will begin recording messaging in Spanish and Vietnamese.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann expounded on Mississippi’s investment with celebrity advertisements from Academy award-winning actor Morgan Freeman and Grammy-award winning country music singer/songwriter Marty Stuart’s “Time Don’t Wait” music video at a briefing on Thursday.

“This is huge economics for Mississippi … A lot of our people don’t have access to computers and so we are challenged here,” Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said at a Feb. 20 briefing.

“April 1 is the Census (Day) and we are now just weeks away from this and y’all are not talking about it that much. I’ll tell ya, we can work real hard to get a teacher pay raise that costs $30 (million) or $40 million, but we could lose that much money in the census.”

Despite the urgency around the census, Delta residents who attended Mississippi Today’s Public Newsroom workshop cited reasons why citizens don’t complete the census:

  • Lack of government trust 
  • Privacy concerns 
  • No comprehensive knowledge of the census (census isn’t taught in schools, for example)
  • Struggle to recruit census workers (Bolivar County is currently 150 workers short, says a census worker)
  • Access to the survey

Wright, the state’s top education official, said her goal is to get the message out to dispel misinformation around the census.

“This is really all, it’s just that simple, making sure every person is counted. You’re not asked anything about income. You’re not asked anything about immigration status any of those things that people may be fearful of that’s not what is on the census,” she said. “The census is basically how many people live in your household.”

As a public resource, Mississippi Today created a guide to equip readers with more information about the census including an overview of the census, interactive timeline, and hard to count areas. You can access it here.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.