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Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Rural Water Representation in the 2020 Census

Rural Water Representation in the 2020 Census

As we approach the execution of the 2020 decennial census, rural communities and their water and wastewater facilities should be aware of the ramifications a new count will have on funding allocation in their community. The U.S. census is updated every 10 years in an effort to enumerate every living person in the United States. While it’s common knowledge that the count is used to update congressional district lines, the census is also used by many federal programs to determine funding distribution. Census data will help programs access population characteristics of communities, the allocation of funds to eligible recipients, and the success of ongoing programs.

In 2015 132 federal programs used census data to distribute over $675 billion in funding. Many of these programs targeted rural development, source water protection, emergency water assistance, and water and wastewater infrastructure.

The upcoming census will start April 1, 2020 by issuing every home on record with a mailed invitation to participate. Responses can be submitted online, over the phone, or by mail. The questions asked by the census cover information about property ownership, gender, age, race, and the number of people living in the residence. Responses are kept confidential under federal law. Census takers will also begin visiting colleges, senior centers, and large community living groups to conduct quality checks. By May 2020, the Census Bureau will visit the homes of those who have not submitted responses. To achieve an accurate count, the U.S. Census Bureau has worked to build an inclusive address list of housing units and develop methods to improve both self-response and follow-up procedures for those who do not respond.

While intensely rural and marginalized communities are historically more susceptible to undercounting than urban, the 2020 census design poses new concerns for rural areas. In an effort to reduce field costs and visits, the upcoming census strategy will be the first to encourage internet self-response. To address known areas of low internet connectivity, the Bureau will mail identified households a paper questionnaire or request responses over the phone. Areas with noncity-style addresses such as rural route numbers will receive a paper questionnaire from a census worker at their door. In the most remote areas, a census taker will enumerate households in-person. Unfortunately, two of the three ‘End-to-End’ tests to evaluate these methods were cancelled leaving insight into how rural communities will be effected by the census design poorly assessed.

The in-person visits pose significant challenges since the homes of remote areas are often spread apart, hidden from the main road, and made up of non-traditional living quarters. As a result, communities in rural Alaska and tribal lands are typically the most undercounted. Furthermore, minority groups, low-income individuals, and rural areas with slow internet connections will find response more difficult than those of urban areas.

Encouraging participation will ensure that your community receives a fair share of rural development and water infrastructure funding. Undercounts can impact anything from justifying water rights to determining eligibility of grants and loans. Public water and wastewater systems, especially those in Indian Country, should request that their local government promote census participation. To start this process, towns or tribal governments can become a Census Bureau partner to have access to promotional materials and census updates. Using local media, radio stations, social media, public meetings, and flyers, rural communities can host outreach campaigns that advocate the significance of the census and how to pro-actively participate. When possible, we encourage communities to make internet response publicly available at local churches, libraries, community centers, etc. With community planning and education, rural communities can be accurately represented in the 2020 census.