Watchdog groups say changes to the 2020 census could make it harder to accurately count people living in rural areas, which could ultimately lead to future funding shortfalls.
As a cost-saving measure, the 2020 census will be the first one conducted largely online. The U.S. Census Bureau will not send its usual paper questionnaires to most households. The goal is to have a majority of Americans submit their own responses online.
But advocates and researchers say inadequate testing of the new technology and a lack access to reliable internet could lead to an undercount. Andrew Reamer with the Institute of Public Policy at George Washington University recently wrote a report that examined just how much money rural communities get from the federal government.
“One thing that surprised me was the number, the sheer number of programs, that are targeted specifically to rural areas,” Reamer says.
In the 2016 fiscal year, more than $25 billion in federal funding went to six major rural assistance programs. Texas received $957 million in assistance, the fifth highest allocation to any state. The majority came in the forms of housing loans for very low- to moderate-income Texans.
“Communities that are undercounted will not get their fair share of a pretty significant pot of money,” Reamer says.
Demographer Bill O’Hare says, in general, rural communities are counted more accurately than urban areas in the census. They also tend to have a higher self-response rate. Still, he says there are some unique challenges ahead for border states like Texas.
“There are a number of hotspots in rural America where the count has been bad in the past and probably will be problematic in 2020,” O’Hare says.
Those hard-to-count rural communities include residents of Appalachia, poor blacks living in the rural South, Latino residents along the Texas-Mexico border and migrant farm workers.
“They travel repeatedly, often don’t have a usual place of residence,” O’ Hare says, “and so that is another group in rural America that is particularly hard to count.”