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The Importance of an accurate 2020 census and how an undercount could affect Pennsylvania

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By Steve Bittenbender, July 18, 2019

Pennsylvania is at particular risk of an undercount in the 2020 Census. This potential undercount could be due to: a disproportionately older population that is likely to struggle with online collection of responses; large rural areas with limited broad band access; and a high proportion of traditionally hard-to-count communities. According to a Penn State University study, more than 800,000 Pennsylvanians lack access to broadband internet.          

Pennsylvania officials and advocates met with state Senate Republicans this week urging them to support efforts to ensure a complete and accurate count in the 2020 U.S. Census.

The Senate Majority Policy Committee however raised questions about how the Wolf Administration has handled the request for funding and wondered if there were other resources available for outreach across the state.

The decennial survey not only gives the federal government a population count, which is then used to determine legislative districts at the federal, state and local levels, it also helps federal agencies determine where funding should be direct.

According to Norman Bristol Colón, the executive director of the Governor’s Census 2020 Complete Count Commission, the state receives $27 billion a year because of data generated from the 2010 census. That’s the fifth-highest total in the country.

However, the state misses out on more funding. Colón said in looking at federal medical assistance funding, each person uncounted costs the state $1,746. That’s the second-highest total in the country.

As part of the state’s efforts, they are targeting populations considered difficult to reach, including minority populations in both urban and rural areas, to ensure all people are counted. That includes 1.6 million African-Americans, 1 million Latinos, 500,000 Asian-Americans and Pacific islanders, and 500,000 people who identify as LGTBQ.

“We fear that an undercount would not only have legislative repercussions but also funding repercussions for the Commonwealth,” Colón said.

The Wolf administration seeks $12.8 million in state funding for that outreach, but state Sen. Mike Folmer, who chairs the Senate State Government Committee, said there was nothing in the budget request from the administration for the census.

The Lebanon Republican said it reminded him of Wolf’s actions when the governor took it upon himself to issue bonds to help counties replace voting machines.

What’s the likelihood the administration will be creative once again and try to find other ways to use state resources to cover the census cost?” Folmer asked.

He also asked if, for example, Penn State could send out a reminder email to all of its students, faculty and staff just ahead of the census. That type of outreach would be free and reach thousands of individuals.

Colon said more needs to be done to connect with the hard-to-find populations, especially the immigrant communities that aren’t aware of the census.

“I believe the state government has a responsibility to make sure we do what we need to do to make 2020 a complete and accurate count,” Colon said.

Folmer called the meeting educational and pledged to use the information from Monday’s meeting to help with the complete count initiative. At the same time though, he wants to see more cooperation from the administration as well.

“I hope that the administration will reverse its history of unilateral actions without any input from the General Assembly and then turn around and expect us to accept whatever actions and decisions they have made,” he said.