With the 2020 census marching closer and closer to its April 1 invitation deadline, municipalities and counties alike are trying to solve what may seem like a simple problem: how to get everyone to participate.
During a city council workshop Oct. 18, Maryville leaders including officials, council members and the mayor discussed the fear that fiscal return for the upcoming decades might be less than it should be.
“That’s the point to get out,” said Councilman Tommy Hunt during the meeting. “There’s a big economic impact on the cities.”
Given the amount of money municipalities and the county make from state and federal programs once census data is analyzed, Mayor Tom Taylor’s comments were all the more significant.
“They are just really having problems getting workers,” Taylor said, talking about the county’s need for more census personnel. “It’s not an easy job, especially if you’re not used to knocking on strange people’s doors. So they are already recruiting.”
Calls for workers are not unique to Blount. The Census Bureau published an Oct. 22 press release announcing it would hire approximately 500,000 temporary workers.
The county, for it’s part, published a notice Oct. 23 on it website echoing the sentiments of Maryville leaders.
“A complete and accurate count is critical for you and your community,” the blounttn.org news item read, “because the results of the 2020 census will affect community funding, congressional representation, and more.”
Maryville City Manager Greg McClain said efforts to promote census needs are coming directly from the mayor’s office and that the city is looking to follow suit.
“While that’s wonderful, we’re glad to be a part, we want to do our own piece of it over here, too, because there’s a real impact if you miss one person,” McClain said. “There’s a lot at stake here.”
Tim Kuhn, director of the Tennessee State Data Center at the Boyd Center for Business and Economics, is one of 38 government and community leaders working alongside the U.S. Census Bureau to get Tennesseans involved in their local census efforts.
“The funding formulas are very complex for the distribution of federal dollars,” Kuhn said in a phone interview. He emphasized that finding an exact amount cities would miss out on per uncounted resident is difficult, if not impossible.
But Kuhn also pointed to a series of studies and reports on the subject dealing with how much cities lose per capita in the case of an incomplete count.
Reports from the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service Institute for Public Service show preliminary estimates of $141.80 lost annually per person, a total cost of around $1,420 over 10 years.
This number uses estimates of revenue from taxes including those for beer, sales, gas, general funds and others.
Though most federal grant money comes from standard census-gathered information like age and income, data based on U.S. Department of Health and Human Services programs tell a different, more expensive story.
Another study called Counting For Dollars 2020 — an analysis published in 2018 by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy which Kuhn said is complex but often quoted — shows losses could exceed $1,000 in a single year.
The study estimates Tennessee missed out on $1,091 for fiscal year 2015 per person missed in the 2010 count.
Coincidentally, $1,091 was also the median fiscal 2015 loss for most states the study measured.
The lowest was $533 for Utah and the highest was $2,309 for Vermont.
“The more accurate a state’s census count, the more equitable is its share of federal funds,” the study said in its introduction. “A substantial undercount in any one state could lead to the diversion of funds away from that state to other states and uses.”
Kuhn said the only way to make up for a head not counted in the census is a city-conducted count.
So, governments are mostly left with a single option if they want to reap as many federal dollars as possible over the next decade: preparation.
“We’re at a point where it’s time to start raising awareness of the census,” Kuhn said. “Right now it’s time to start focusing on raising awareness that it’s coming, to raise awareness of the importance of it, from the standpoint of political representations and creation of political districts and apportionment of congressional seats.”
But that’s up to Blount’s counties and cities.
Even as national calls go out for more workers, some are already knocking on doors.
“The real issues is that every effort that’s being made to get an accurate census has some issues with it and it’s making the people who go out and take the census a little bit gun shy,” Taylor said during the council workshop.
His concerns are not unfounded.
A Blount County Sheriff’s office report from late September recounts the story of a census taker who pulled up to a home on Lovers Lane in Townsend to do her job.
She claimed she was then greeted by a man with a handgun who pointed it in her direction and told her to get off his property.
She left without incident, the report said.
“You’d be surprised how many people are not comfortable (being census takers),” Taylor said, adding “It takes feet on the ground.”