By Emily Featherston | September 11, 2020 at 4:39 PM EDT – Updated September 15 at 6:19 PM
SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) – Between the coronavirus pandemic, an already active hurricane season, and a compressed timeline, challenges abound for those working to ensure North Carolinians are adequately counted in the 2020 Census.
But challenges or not, the clock is ticking—unless lawmakers in Washington extend the deadline, responses are due by Wednesday, September 30.
So far, that deadline doesn’t appear to be moving, despite calls from advocates and lawmakers at a congressional hearing last week.
According to Virginia Hyer, chief of the U.S. Census Bureau’s public relations branch, the agency is moving forward with the deadline two weeks from now.
Other than that, she said they couldn’t comment because of ongoing litigation.
For local leaders, that looming deadline is concerning because of the low response rate in the Cape Fear region.
“We’re behind the eight ball,” said Jonathan Barfield, a New Hanover County commissioner and co-chair of the county’s Complete Count Committee.
As of Sept. 14, 62.4% of New Hanover County’s estimated population, 56.4% of Pender’s, 52.2% of Brunswick’s, 50.8% of Columbus’s and 47.5% of Bladen’s, had self-responded to the census.
Statewide, the numbers are similar: 61.9% of the estimated population has responded, with 25.8% added thanks to follow-up efforts.
Those numbers lag much of the rest of the country, and if not corrected by the deadline could cost the state tens of millions of dollars every year for the next ten years.
Those dollars go toward things such as education, transportation, and public health, and are much-needed by local communities.
“I often say that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and so if we don’t have the same numbers we had before or less numbers, of course, we’re gonna lose dollars,” Barfield said. “We’re gonna see, you know, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars leave our community because we’ve not done our job in terms of getting everyone counted here.”
Hyer with the census bureau echoed those thoughts.
“The 2020 census impacts our power and Congress, our congressional representation and it also impacts the number of dollars that come down to the local community,” she said. “Every single year, billions with a B is distributed throughout the whole entire country and we need to know how many People live in North Carolina so you all get the vital resources that you need.”
The NC Counts Coalition, which works to advocate and help boost census efforts across the state, testified in congress Thursday to ask the federal government to push back the census deadline to Oct. 31.
At that hearing, a government report was cited that estimates for every one percent North Carolina is under-counted, the state stands to lose $99 million each year for 10 years.
Not only are the stakes high, but the executive director of the coalition, Stacey Carless, says they are worried the communities that need those federal dollars the most are not being counted correctly.
Where this region stands in the 2020 Census year
“Currently, census tracts with low census self-response rates have greater proportions of residents that identify as American Indian, Black or Latino,” she said to the congressional committee Thursday.
Those communities, she said, have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic and recent hurricane seasons.
“North Carolina needs an extended timeline for self-response and a robust non-response follow up field outreach,” she said at the hearing. “We are extremely concerned that North Carolina is on the verge of a failed 2020 census.”
A spokesperson for the coalition said they are particularly concerned that the efforts that are happening to follow up with non-respondents are primarily focused in the mountains and beaches—not the low-income and minority communities that are harder to count.
Several non-profit organizations in the Cape Fear region have been working to aid in the counting effort.
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