In Saturday’s Dispatch, we reported that according to U.S. Census Bureau data released in May, Oxford grew from 2020 to 2021 at a rate of 1.4% while Henderson lost 1.1% of its residents.
Percentage points don’t tell the whole story, but the numbers are worth charting.
We know that census data drives policymaking. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Population Reference Bureau, six key areas are impacted by census results: apportionment in the U.S. House of Representatives, redistricting, money allocated to states and localities, planning, emergency response, and a base for federal surveys.
The data, however, could be incomplete if municipalities or counties have been overcounted or undercounted.
Factor in that growth percentage rates are not always a clear metric. For example, the growth rates of Middleburg (-1.9%) and Kittrell (-1.5%) from 2020 to 2021 put those towns in the top 30 in the state (out of 551 municipalities) in population decline. But Middleburg and Kittrell lost only a combined four residents during that time period.
The Census Bureau listed Henderson’s 2010 population as 15,368. The 2021 number was 14,594.
Henderson losing a total of 173 residents in one year, the 10th-highest decline in the state, is more telling, although a few of the cities hovering around that bottom-10 list with Henderson have little in common with the Vance County seat. Asheville, Chapel Hill and Carrboro each are in the top 12 and those cities all experienced growth in the previous decade.
Henderson-Vance County Chamber of Commerce President Michele Burgess said last week she believes a low local census response accounts for at least some of the recent population decline.
And that stands to reason.
Before the census, the North Carolina Rural Center identified Vance as one of 15 counties with the highest risk of an undercount.
In October 2020, North Carolina was 41st in the country in total response rate to Census 2020, although the U.S. Census Bureau did not classify North Carolina recently as one of the six states it undercounted. Henderson’s self-response rate (56.5%) wasn’t among the lowest in the state, but it did fall behind the state’s overall number (63.4%).
Congressional District 1, which includes Henderson, had a self-response rate of 58.8%, down from 65% in 2010.
The Associated Press wrote in a June 1 report that “the 2020 census undercounted the overall U.S. population by only 0.24%. The count was challenged by the coronavirus pandemic, natural disasters and political interference from the Trump administration. But some minority groups were undercounted at greater rates than the previous decade. Historically, racial and ethnic minorities, renters and young children are the people who have been undercounted.”
“Political interference” refers to an attempt to stop the census count prematurely, and to not count unauthorized immigrants.
Results of Census Bureau focus groups in 2020 found five primary barriers to census participation: “a lack of knowledge about the census, apathy and lack of efficacy (i.e., lack of confidence that individuals have the ability to influence government), confidentiality and privacy concerns, fear of repercussions, and general distrust of government.”
Although the Census Bureau believes its numbers are close to accurate for most states, it did acknowledge that Black and Latino populations were undercounted in the last census, and the Census Bureau hasn’t provided specific data on where geographically each group of undercounted populations is located.
So what should we make of all this?
Steve Jost, a census consultant the New York Times cited in a May 19 story, said, “All but one of the states with population overcounts, an inaccuracy that can prove beneficial through additional political representation and federal funding, mounted their own campaigns to convince residents to fill out census forms. All but one of the states that were undercounted spent no money to promote the census.”
If we want our communities to be fairly and equitably represented, it might come at a cost. Fairness comes with privilege, and the data backs that up.
When it comes to being counted, it’s every state, county, city — and person — for itself.