A high-stakes count: NC’s census response rate trails national average

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolinians have some work to do for the U.S. Census to get a full count.

The state trails both the current national average in self-responding to the U.S. Census and its own rate from a decade ago.

The end of September marks the deadline to respond to a census that has particularly high stakes for the state, which stands to gain a 14th seat in the U.S. House of Representatives with a population that has grown to nearly 10.5 million people, according to recent census estimates.

“We want to make sure that our count is complete so that we get that seat,” Rebecca Tippett, director of the Carolina Demography Center at the University of North Carolina, told CBS 17 News.

In addition, an accurate count can help North Carolina claim roughly $44 billion of the approximately $1.5 trillion in funds distributed to the states each year through hundreds of federal programs, Tippett said.

North Carolina’s self-response rate of 60.7 percent ranks better than just 12 states and well under the national average of 64.9 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data Tuesday.

North Carolina saw a 64.8 percent response rate during the last census in 2010.

One reason for the relatively low response rate, Tippett said, is the omnipresent coronavirus pandemic.

“As much as we can say, ‘Great, do the census, it’s socially-distant-friendly, it’s pandemic-friendly,’ completing the census questionnaire is probably the last thing on your mind in that time period because there’s been a lot of tumult in people’s lives,” Tippett said. “So we’re just hoping that now, maybe things are a little bit back to normal, we have a couple more weeks that we can really get people to finish those (responses).”

State Attorney General Josh Stein wants to give North Carolinians another month to complete them.

Stein on Tuesday said he and a coalition of leaders from across the country filed a brief to support the National Urban League’s lawsuit that opposes the Sept. 30 deadline. The bureau said Aug. 3 that it would stop counting at the end of September — a month earlier than previously announced — in an effort to speed up the compilation process.

In response, a group of 23 attorneys general, five cities, four counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors filed the brief in support of the urban league’s lawsuit, which was filed in late August.

“People are busy and overwhelmed right now as a result of this pandemic,” Stein said in a statement. “It’s no time to rush something as important as the census.”

The spots in the state with the lowest response rates are concentrated in the western mountains, the Sandhills and the northeast corner. That tends to correlate with the areas where internet access is most limited.

Avery County has the lowest self-response rate in the state at 30.7 percent, and four counties in the western tip have response rates in the mid-to-high 30 percent range, as do Hyde and Dare counties on the coast.

“We know that parts of North Carolina with low internet access, those are the areas that we’re seeing by far the lowest response rates, and in large part that really intersects with COVID,” Tippett said. “The way we would have done outreach and engagement and planned for on-the-ground, high-touch, go to grocery stores, have mobile questionnaire systems, all of that got scrapped when the pandemic started occurring in March.”

Four counties have self-response rates of 69 percent or better, including Orange (71 percent) and Wake (70.7 percent). Union County has the top rate in the state at 72.5 percent.

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