Maine’s post COVID-19 economic recovery depends on a fair and accurate census

This article, by of the University of Maine, was originally published on the Bangor Daily News opinion page on April 7, 2020.

John Raoux | AP
In this Tuesday, March 24, 2020 photo, forms from the U.S. Census Bureau arrive at a home in Orlando, Fla. The coronavirus has waylaid efforts to get as many people as possible to take part in the census.

Last week’s unprecedented COVID-19-driven unemployment numbers made painfully clear what we already knew. We’re in for a bumpy ride and, eventually, a challenging economic recovery.

Much will depend on our efforts to fight the spread of the virus in the next several weeks. But many experts already forecast a protracted disruption unlike anything since World War II. Economic recovery could take years.

Getting a fair and accurate Census count is vital to supporting those in our communities who will struggle to make ends meet in the long shadow of our present crisis.

That’s because of how our government uses data to fund the lifelines that sustain individuals and families through hard times. Hundreds of the programs that our neighbors, friends, and loved ones rely upon are funded according to data drawn from the U.S. Census.

Every year, nearly $900 billion is distributed across all 50 states to fund community support for Medicaid, student loans, food assistance, home loans, public housing, and many other vital programs. In 2016 alone, this translated into roughly $4.1 billion in funds for Maine (for comparison, the state’s 2020-2021 biennial budget was $7.98 billion). Even if you have not participated in these programs, you likely know someone who does and who would be affected by funding changes. With COVID-19’s impacts on unemployment and small businesses, the ranks of Mainers acutely needing help are already expanding dramatically.

The U.S Census data also helps determine what construction projects get funded and built in partnership with our state and local governments. This impacts highways, libraries, government buildings, hospitals, schools. Having a fair, accurate census ensures that funds go where they are most needed. And in the wake of COVID-19, these vital infrastructure projects will be a pathway back into employment for many Mainers.

Unfortunately, those most in need are often within “hard to count” communities, particularly as the Census shifts to a new strategy that encourages initial responses online. Only 78% of people making under $30,000 a year have consistent broadband access, with only 80% of Mainers having access at all. Those figures are drawn from, you guessed it, the U.S Census Bureau.

A recent report from the Urban Institute suggests that undercounting in 2020 could miss between 900,000 and 4 million individuals. The study suggests that the 2020 Census may undercount children below the age of five by up to 6% and those who are black or Hispanic by as much 3.68 and 3.57%, respectively.

At last week’s end, only 35% of Mainers had responded to the Census (well below the national average of 43.9%). This means that in the coming months, US Census employees will have to reach out in person, and this increases the likelihood that members of our communities may be missed or counted inaccurately. And we’re still not sure how COVID-19 social distancing protocols might impact that important work.

By taking a few minutes to fill out the Census now (online, by mail, or by phone), you are ensuring that the government has an accurate sense of who resides in your community, what its members need, and how resources should be distributed to support those needs.

In this challenging economic moment, we need to support one another as we’ve done so many times before. It’s important that we all get counted in the Census, not just for ourselves but for our entire community, because 10 minutes of our time can make 10 years’ worth of a difference.

Robert W. Glover is an associate professor of political science and honors and Kevin Fitzpatrick is a third-year political science student at the University of Maine. These are their views and do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine. Glover is co-leader of the Maine Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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