Census Response In Arizona Nears Bottom Nationwide
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- With just over a month to go, Arizonans are responding to the U.S. Census at a rate near the bottom of the national pack.
And that could affect everything from federal aid to whether the state gets another seat in the U.S. House.
New figures from the Census Bureau show that just 60.9% have returned their questionnaire, whether online or by mail. And even with census workers following up by going to homes where people didn't respond, the rate is just 68.8%
Only three states have lower tallies: Georgia, New Mexico and South Carolina.
This comes despite $1.2 million the governor's office put into what Alec Thomson, the governor's director of strategic initiatives and campaigns, described as grassroots and paid media efforts to drive up response. And when that didn't produce the desired response, Gov. Doug Ducey pumped another $600,000 aimed at increasing the response rate among tribal communities, rural areas "and other traditionally undercounted communities.''
Thomson said the state has redoubled its efforts, with everything from a new round of radio ads to having census trackers setting up stands in front of Food City grocery stores.
And he said the governor extended his Arizona Complete County Committee through the end of October.
But time is running out before then.
The original plan was to have census takers in the field through the end of July.
Then, with the COVID-19 outbreak and the inability to get census takers out on the streets, that was extended through the end of October. But now the agency wants everything done by the end of September.
"I think what you have happening in Arizona is somewhat of a perfect storm,'' Thomson said, citing delays in the field operations. And that, he said, created problems particularly in tribal and rural areas.
On one hand, he said, urban areas are doing better, with a 64.8% total self-response rate in both Pima and Maricopa counties compared with the 60.9% statewide figure. Yavapai County is only slightly farther behind at 63.4%.
But in Navajo County just 30.5% of people either returned the forms or responded online. It was even worse in Apache County with a 20.7% response rate.
Thomson said reservations present a unique situation, saying that some are refusing to open up to census workers to do in-person follow-up visits. Its for that same reason, he said, that New Mexico also has a response rate below average.
"The in-person part of this was key for Arizona, is key for Arizona,'' Thomson said. Put another way, if those follow-up visits don't produce data, the state will end up with an overall response rate that falls short of much of the rest of the country.
There's also the possibility that those in the state who are not here legally may be reticent to respond, whether directly or to a census worker coming to the door, even with the Trump administration withdrawing its bid to not count them, and even with assurances that anything someone tells a census taker will remain confidential.
All this is not just academic, or even about bragging rights.
Thomson figures that every 1% missed translates out to $60 million a year in lost federal dollars which are doled out on a population basis. Multiply that time a decade -- the time until the next census -- and that $600 million in foregone revenues for each percentage short.
Put another way, Thomson said, each counted person brings in about $3,000 a year.
Still, he said, there are no firm numbers to exactly what an undercount actually will mean financially.
"That is a question that we can't totally answer yet,'' Thomson said.
"There is a lot that goes into that final count,'' he explained. "There are some statistical formulas that are integrated into the final count.''
And, ultimately, Thomson said Arizona needs to see whether that in-person follow-up operation manages to move the needle a bit.
"We just need to remain focused on doing everything we can right now,'' he said.
It's not just money that's at stake. There's also political power.
In a report late last year, Election Data Services concluded that shift in population from the Northeast to the South and West should pretty much guarantee that Arizona will pick up a 10th seat in the U.S. House after the decennial census. The organization's Kimball Brace said that's because Arizona is adding residents at a rate faster than much of the rest of the country.
But only official tallies by the Census Bureau matter. And if they're not on this official list, they don't count.
Even the internal response rate matters.
The number of legislative districts will remain the same at 30. But there is a requirement to come up with districts of roughly equal population.
If some areas are undercounted, they may need to be combined geographically with adjacent areas to meet the official population threshold.