By Beth O’Connor, published by the National Rural Health Association
In just a few months, the rural communities of this nation will have the once-in-a-decade chance to represent themselves alongside the hundreds of millions of folks who call America home.
On April 1, 2020, staff from the Census Bureau will fan out in communities small and large to tally all those who make their home in the United States. Surveying will occur in every corner of the country, from the remote coasts of Alaska to the Maine seaboard, from the Arizona desert to the Florida Everglades, and all points in between.
In terms of importance, being counted in the census is more essential than voting.
Casting a ballot gives people a voice in representative government by electing officials who serve locally and in Washington. The decisions made by elected officials can sometimes feel like faraway things until they impact your community or way of life.
The census may also feel like a faraway thing. But the truth is being included in the census can have a real impact on people in local communities. Having an accurate assessment of the diversity that makes up the American portrait is vital to ensure our communities receive the funding to which they are entitled.
Each year, an estimated $675 billion in federal funding is distributed to communities across the nation based on census data. That funding supports a wide range of essential programs that help provide health care, housing, education, transportation infrastructure, and so many other public services.
In states with larger rural populations, that funding is substantial. In 2016, Virginia received nearly $18 billion in census funding — an amount roughly equivalent to one-fifth of the commonwealth’s annual budget.
In many states, census funds are used to plan highway construction projects, support mass transit, and extend the electric grid in rural communities. Census dollars help fund health care for children, expectant mothers, and disabled individuals. The funds support adoption services and grants to help young people attend college and technical training.
And that’s just scratching the surface of all the vital programs the census funds.
Reading that, you might say to yourself: “That is all well and good, but what does it have to do with me and my family?”
The answer: Quite a lot.
Each person who goes uncounted in the 2020 census could result in communities missing out on thousands of dollars in annual funding. If just 10 people in your community miss being counted, that could result in $200,000 in resources shifted to another area over the next 10 years.
Studies show that millions of missing or incorrect residential addresses only compound the issue. If even a tiny fraction of people in any state go uncounted in 2020, it could result in millions in lost funding.
As a person, you have innate, intrinsic value. You matter on an individual level. That’s why it is critical for you and members of your community to be counted during the 2020 census — so your community receives the funding and support it deserves to keep it a great place to work, play, and live.
The census is a time-honored national tradition dating to 1790. Over the centuries it has endured social, political, and societal changes. What has remained constant to this day is that data collected during the census is confidential and only used to ensure federal resources are fairly allocated. So people living in rural areas, including those in traditionally marginalized or undercounted communities, should have confidence about participating in the 2020 census for the good of their families and their communities.
Undercounted is underfunded, underrepresented, and under-resourced. The message you can bring to your neighbors is simple: Get counted in the 2020 census.
Beth O’Connor is executive director of the Virginia Rural Health Association and a member of the Virginia Complete Count Commission.