Census Bureau announced March 18 that the census field operations will be suspended until April 1, national Census Day.

Over the last decade, states lost billions of federal dollars due to inaccurate population counts. Since last fall, many of those states have poured in massive amounts of cash to push outreach, hoping to get more participation in the 2020 Census. At the top of the year, Mississippi lawmakers followed suit, spending just under a half a million dollars on census efforts. 

With billions of dollars on the line, some worry the state’s investment may not be enough to counter citizens’ fears or to reach hard-to-count communities to ensure an accurate count, and now as the state ramps up efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, census workers must delay field work.

On March 18, the Census Bureau director announced the census field operations will be suspended until April 1, the national Census Day.

“The Census Bureau is taking this step to help protect the health and safety of the American public, Census Bureau employees, and everyone going through the hiring process for temporary census taker positions,” the release stated.

However, the Census Bureau must deliver the counts on schedule and officials encourage residents to respond to the form on their own – online, by phone, or by mail.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, some state lawmakers were worried about barriers to getting a complete count.

“I don’t think the leadership in this state want’s everyone counted. …When you begin to look at the equation of the variables in the census, we have to pay attention to four or five different variables that people aren’t aware of,” State Rep. John Hines said in a phone call with Mississippi Today. 

Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville

The variables, Hinds added, include the state’s population of incarcerated individuals, college students, and migrant workers, who may not have accurate numbers. Other at-risk populations include low-income households, young children and black and Native American households. Approximately 27 percent, or almost 800,000, of the state’s population are in hard-to-count neighborhoods, or areas with potential inaccurate counts.

“We have to think about how we’re engaging this process,” he said.

On March 12, households received invitations by mail from the U.S. Census Bureau to participate in the census. The Census Bureau is the federal government agency that conducts the count of every living person in the United States, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories. 

The urgency around the census stems from the fact this count only happens once every ten years and it impacts the distribution of federal funds to more than 100 programs including Medicare, SNAP, schools, roads and bridges. Over the last decade, Mississippi lost nearly $14 billion for children 5 and under due to an undercount in the 2010 Census, according to Mississippi KIDS COUNT. 

A report by the Urban Institute predicts the overall accuracy of the national population count in 2020 could range from an undercount of 0.27 percent to 1.22 percent. This equates to nearly 900,000 to more than 4 million people being undercounted nationwide. Mississippi’s undercount could range between 0.42 and 1.3 percent, or as many as 40,000 residents undercounted in 2020.

Over the next decade, for every child that is not counted, the state loses an average of nearly $3,000 per student annually. And counties could lose between $5,500 and $1.7 million dollars annually, state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said to Delta high school students recently.

“If they don’t have accurate data then Mississippi doesn’t get accurate dollars sent to us in a timely way,” Wright said on Feb. 28.

What is Mississippi’s investment?

John J. Green, appointed vice-chairman of the Mississippi Complete Count Committee and director for the Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi, said early on the group focused on informing different leaders about the census and what’s at stake. Then, assisted in mobilizing people to promote and educate Mississippians.

Mississippi currently has 123 local 2020 complete count committees – teams of community leaders – and one statewide complete count committee, established by former Gov. Phil Bryant through an executive order in August. 

In December, the Secretary of State’s office, under leadership of now Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, awarded a $22,500 contract to The Focus Group, a Biloxi-based public relations firm, to develop a marketing plan for the census efforts. Just last week, a jury found the company’s registered president Ted Cain, his wife, and others liable of more than $10 million Medicare fraud by charging Stone County Hospital for work they never did, the Sun-Herald reported.

In February, the Legislature passed a deficit appropriation bill to allocate $400,000 to the Department of Finance and Administration to enter into contracts to promote, market and advertise the census. Through a no-bid process, the DFA awarded a contract to The Focus Group, to create an in-depth marketing plan for outreach efforts. The 100-page plan can be accessed here and here

Mississippi’s investment lags our neighboring states. Alabama appropriated $1.24 million and Georgia allocated $3.8 million to promote the census, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported. 

States funnel money into census campaigns to dispel misinformation and myths some citizens harbor about the census and to address privacy concerns, officials say.

Former Sen. Giles Ward, who serves as chairman of the Mississippi Complete Count Committee, said they developed billboards, television and newspaper advertisements, and a public service announcement from Academy award-winning actor Morgan Freeman. The Focus Group listed Freeman as a “trusted voice” in Mississippi in their marketing plan. There is also a website for Mississippians to access information about the census.

But the advertisement with Freeman caused confusion among viewers, the Associated Press reported. The Census Bureau notified the state and Mississippi officials say the ad has been corrected.

“The Mississippi Complete Count Committee is not concerned if the resource in the mail is blue, pink, or yellow,” Ward said in a statement. “We don’t believe Mississippians are very concerned with that either.”

Although households were contacted via mail, the Census Bureau is relying heavily on forms submitted via the internet.

“So many homes, libraries, and churches have (internet) access and that’s going to help us get a complete count,” Ward said.

Residents can complete the form online, by phone, or by mail.

However, in addition to at-risk populations, access to internet could be another hurdle for some Mississippians, particularly those living in the already hard-to-count Mississippi Delta. From 2014 to 2018, almost 30 percent of Mississippi households had no home internet subscription or only dial-up, according to the latest American Community Survey estimates

Despite advertising and marketing initiatives, the primary challenge to an accurate count, is changing the culture around misinformation and privacy concerns, several lawmakers said.

“We have to do more (education) prior to doing the count. A lot of people aren’t aware of the impact of the census and why it’s important. We’re seeing a repetitive cycle of lack of knowledge of census in hard-to-count areas,” Rep. Lataisha Jackson, said. 

She noted, vulnerable populations may not know what to ask census takers, what information to disclose, or if benefits like Social Security Income will be impacted.

“When high poverty areas are asked to disclose info, they are hesitant … They don’t want to overstate or understate not knowing how it’s going to impact my services or benefits. So it’s for having trusted individuals to say this will help you to continue to receive those resources,” Jackson added.

So, what questions should participants expect on the census questionnaire? It asks questions related to the number of people living in the household, sex of the individual and race. It will not ask for social security or bank account numbers. Here is a sample form.

Looking to other states

Beyond the Legislature’s financial investment and engagement efforts, it takes local agencies, organizations, and “boots on the ground” to help spread the message, said Hines, the Delta lawmaker. 

Recently, a group of Mississippi lawmakers met with Fair Count, an Atlanta-based nonprofit founded by Stacey Abrams, whose mission is to get a “fair and accurate count” of all people in Georgia and the nation by partnering with hard-to-count communities to strengthen participation.

Approximately 22 percent of Georgia’s current population live in hard-to-count neighborhoods. Similarly to its neighbor Mississippi, Georgia advocates worried rural areas would be left out. Fair Count has set up free Internet hotspots in more than two dozen churches and locations around Georgia. The organization plans to have 150 installed until the end of the year.

“It’s not just about the census. It’s also about using the census as a catalyst for further civic participation,” Fair Count CEO Rebecca DeHart told NPR.

Earlier this month, the group and Abrams were scheduled launched the “I Count Bus Tour,” to increase awareness about the census with 50 stops scheduled across the state, Atlanta Daily Word reported.

Hines said Fair Count talked to lawmakers over dinner about the success of portable hotspots in certain areas in Georgia.

“The doctor’s office, barbershops, lawyer’s offices … I think (people) might fill out that information if I had access to the information (elsewhere) or if someone could help me fill it out without judging me,” Hines said.

Outside of the aforementioned engagement plans, no alternative solutions have been solidified. No matter how the message gets across, all say everyone must be counted.

“I think part of what’s so important is for people to understand the implications of census data … it’s a bedrock to how our democracy works with redistricting … but also in terms of resources available … as it relates to funding around health care, transportation, infrastructure,” Green, the vice-chairman, said. 

Find more 2020 Census information in Mississippi Today’s census guide.

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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.