What an Incomplete Census Means to West Virginia

Brian Skinner Census

Census 2020

By Brian Skinner, Esq.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it is wrapping up its collection of data on September 30, 2020, rather than the planned date of October 31. The census has been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges of outreach and retaining workers. 

In order to be counted in the 2020 census, households must complete the survey by September 30, 2020. However, as of August 10, West Virginia ranks 49th in responses. Only New Mexico, Alaska and Puerto Rico have a worse response rate. 

What does this mean for the state? Unless Congress extends the deadline to complete the census, West Virginia’s lack of response will resonate for the next decade.

That’s because the census is incredibly important to West Virginia. Each year, census results determine how the federal government spends its money. An analysis of 55 census-directed programs found that in fiscal year 2016, West Virginia received $6.8 billion in funding based on census results. That includes:

  • $472 million for highway planning and construction.
  • $499 million for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
  • $78 million in special education grants.
  • $77 million for school lunches.
  • $29 million for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
  • $8.4 million in grants to prevent and treat substance abuse.

In fiscal year 2015, for each person not counted in the last census, the state lost $1,017 in federal medical assistance percentage (FMAP). The FMAP determines how funding is allocated for five major programs that support the health and well-being of children and families: Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Federal Foster Care Program, the Adoption Assistance Program, and the Child Care and Development Fund. 

Also noteworthy is that the funding the state receives from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) is based on census data. West Virginia has already received $1.25 billion in CRF funds. 

Funding from the federal government depends on an accurate census. If the 2020 Census fails to reflect the state’s actual population, West Virginia may forfeit its full share of federal dollars.

Last April, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Census Bureau released a joint statement saying that an extended deadline for data collection was necessary to protect public health and to “[e]nsure a complete and accurate count of all communities.” But, as noted above, the administration has reversed course and announced that it now intends to cut short the collection of census data despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As of August 10, the response rate of the census stood at only 63.4 percent; the response rate in West Virginia is significantly lower, at 55 percent. That means that unless the deadline for the census is extended, West Virginia stands to lose millions of dollars in federal funding every year until the 2030 census is complete.
But that’s not all. The Census results also govern the number of seats the state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives. And, companies rely on census data to help locate customers and guide major business decisions, such as where to invest and create new jobs. The “net net” is that an incomplete census is bad for democracy, bad for business, and bad for West Virginia. 

Given the decision to cut short the count, the state’s political leaders should immediately act to ensure that the Census Bureau has the time it needs to conduct a full, fair, and accurate census. At the very least, data collection should be allowed to continue until October 31 instead of September 30.

Brian J. Skinner is the former counsel to the West Virginia House of Delegates Committee on the Judiciary and counsel to the West Virginia Senate Minority Caucus. He has over a decade of experience as an adviser to legislators on legal and political issues related to pending legislation; providing research and legal analysis services to legislative committees; and preparing bills, resolutions, amendments, and other documents for the West Virginia Legislature.

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