With all that’s going on in the world, it’s no surprise that filling out the 2020 census might not the at the top of people’s to-do lists, and it shows.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the response rate to the constitutionally mandated count of the country’s population is at about 41 percent.
During the same time period 10 years ago, nearly half the population had reported.
Iowans, however, have taken their civic duty a little more seriously. As of Friday afternoon, the state showed a nearly 48 percent response rate, with just over 42 percent of those responses being made over the internet.
In Linn County, the response rate is roughly 50 percent, while the Johnson County response rate is just above 48 percent. Nearly all of the responses in both counties came in from the internet.
“That’s really the big difference from the 2010 census,” said Adam Lindenlaub, a planner with the Cedar Rapids Community Development and Planning Department. “The option to respond online makes filling out that census form even easier and I think that’s one of the reasons we are seeing such a positive response rate.”
But there are some concerns the coronavirus situation could affect the state’s count.
“I work for Linn County in community services and I deal a lot with homelessness and housing instability issues,” said Ashley Balius, director of Community Outreach and Assistance for Linn County. “I also oversee the general systems department where we administer rent and utility assistance. And that of course has been a need that’s been increasing regardless within the community. But one of the big concerns now is that we’re going to see — and I don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like yet — an even larger increase in demand for rent and utility assistance moving forward, depending on how long people have to be off work. And a lot of those dollars are driven by census counts, so it’s really important we get an accurate count.”
Another concern is getting an accurate count of the state’s student populations.
“This is something I’m tremendously worried about right now with the COVID,” said Rod Sullivan, chairman of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.
The main concern, he said, are out-of-state students who have returned home. Like other campuses, the University of Iowa in Iowa City closed its residence halls to most students and plans to complete the semester with online rather than in-person education.
It’s up to the students to decide which location they want to name as their residence, but typically, Sullivan said, out-of-state students would be included in Iowa’s count given they live in Iowa roughly two-thirds of the year.
“Historically, we have found that about half of the students consider Iowa City their full-time home, and half of the students don’t,” he said. “But, because of the COVID situation, many of those students who would normally count themselves in Iowa have gone home, so I’m concerned we may see smaller counts in that area.”
Hard-to-count populations such as the homeless, immigrants and individuals housed in correctional institutions are also a concern, especially since the census counters who normally would go door-to-door might not be able or willing to risk exposure.
Fear of deportations and language barriers can also make counting immigrant communities challenging.
Getting an accurate census count is important because that data determines the state’s representation in Congress and is also used to determine how big a piece of the pie Iowa gets from federal funds.
“Iowa lost one of those representatives in 2010, and so obviously you know we don’t want to have another loss in terms of our federal representation,” Lindenlaub said. “The other thing is that a lot of different grants that would go to school districts or local government programs use those population numbers to determine who gets what. So obviously the higher your population numbers, that usually gives you access to a larger number of federal funds.”
Federal funds not only go to large programs like infrastructure and Medicaid, but also to local programs like the Cedar Rapids Community Development Block Grants and the city’s transit program.
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“Obviously, we’d like to see a 100 percent response rate across the state,” Lindenlaub said. “I mean I would be ecstatic if we saw that, because that just means we really are making sure every person is counted — that everyone’s voice counts.”
“It’s really easy to do,” Sullivan said. “I just filled out mine the other day, and gosh, it might have been just a little over five minutes.”
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