Census Story
Left to right: Jessica Chamberlin, Kelly Reisig, Louisa Amos, Brittney Petersen, Mayor Rick Norby, Commissioner Duane Mitchell and Rita Steinbeisser. 

The 2020 Census deadline is approaching faster than expected.

The U.S. Census Bureau released a statement on August 3, 2020 declaring the field data collection would be completed by September 30, one month earlier than anticipated. This news is sparking concern nationwide that many areas of the country will be undercounted, resulting in loss of funding and representation, among other concerns.

Richland County currently sits at a 52% self-response rate. In the last census, 10 years ago, Richland County was estimated to have had a 67.6% self-response rate.

Communities in Action, the acting Complete Count Committee for Richland County, met on September 10 to discuss strategies for a final push toward a “complete count.”

Everyone interviewed for this article encouraged people to do their civic duty and be counted.

Accurate Incomes

Richland County Commissioner Duane Mitchell said he believes there are too many personal questions. When discussing why people are reluctant to respond to the census, Commissioner Mitchell explained that questions concerning income and ethnicity do not fall within the call for the census from the Constitution of the United States. Rather, the Constitution calls for the census to apportion taxes among states and to fulfill fair representation.

UPDATED Sept. 15, 2020: "I appreciate your coverage of the 2020 Census and wanted to flag for you that the Census does not ask any questions about income or finances." –Emilie Ritter Saunders, Director of Communications and Public Affairs, Acting Deputy Director, Montana Department of Commerce

Jessica Chamberlin, Sidney Clerk/Treasurer, stated that the information gathered from the 2020 Census regarding income will set the median income for the city and county for the next 10 years.

Chamberlin listed public services — such as water and sewer rates — affected by the determined median income amount. If the median income is higher than a certain point, she explained the city is not eligible for infrastructure grants that would relieve taxpayers of some major expenses.

There is an increased possibility of a median income determination higher than the area’s actual median income if the U.S. Census is not able to gather accurate data.

Kelly Reisig, Director of the Sidney Richland County Library, said other resources — such as the free and reduced lunch program offered to youth students — could be severely impacted. If this happens, some families with children will struggle with food scarcity if their median incomes are insufficient to cover added food expenses.

Ultimately, this impacts the entire community.

Taxing System

Factors the Communities in Action Complete Count Committee observed as barriers to residents cooperating with census workers included a general lack of understanding about government funding.

Many residents do not understand what is at stake. Area residents might be skeptical of the government gathering data on individuals. There have also been comments indicating that most of the information on the census could easily be gathered from tax information, and therefore not necessary to complete.

This is reportedly false.

Chamberlin informed the committee that the IRS and the U.S. Census Bureau are two separate federal departments. Census takers are trained to excel in confidentiality. They cannot legally report any census results to anyone — including other government entities.

Even the role of the Complete Count Committee is carefully regulated to ensure the census is promoted and the public is educated. However, the actual data is gathered by an approved platform or by a trained professional.

Fair Representation

Another major risk in being undercounted for the census is the county’s representation in the Montana legislature.

“Our one legislator is the lone voice for Richland County in Helena,” Commissioner Mitchell said.

He explained that because of the population in Richland County, the entire community benefits from having a legislature representative specific to Richland County rather than a regional representative. The Montana State Senate is similarly at risk if Richland County’s population is undercounted.

Undercounted communities could result in a change to the Montana State Senators districts, spreading the area’s senator thin and making the region harder to cover.

“The whole thing is about money,” stated Commissioner Mitchell.

Sidney Mayor Rick Norby agreed. Dollars for funding in every public service — from public health and education to urban funding and infrastructure needs — are at risk, Norby said. If this funding is not allotted to Richland County communities, these burdens could become local taxpayers’ expenses.

Additionally, the current map of the self-response rates are a prime example of why western Montana leverages more dollars than the eastern side of the state. Many western Montana counties are 10 to 20 percent higher in self-response rates than Richland County.

The Sidney Richland County Library (SRCL) is considered the local census “champion” because the library serves as the location to complete the U.S. Census online.

SRCL is offering 12 opportunities to win $100 in Chamber Bucks. To enter this drawing send the library’s Facebook page a message with the picture of your U.S. Census confirmation message. No personal information is included in this confirmation message.

If a friend names you as the referrer to the census, you will also be entered for a chance to win the Chamber Bucks.

Need to Know

Completing the census takes no more than a 10 minutes. There are many modes of self-response.

To respond online, visit: https://my2020census.gov/. The website will walk you through a simple process.

To respond by phone, call: 844-330-2020.

You may respond to the Census by mailing back the questionnaire sent to your address.

There are census takers within the Richland County communities. Courtesy is the watchword, as these workers are trying to do their job.

Finally, bear in mind that every uncounted person cuts $20,000 of funding from the community over the next 10 years and costs taxpayer dollars.

Census questions can be viewed at: https://2020census.gov/en/about-questions.html

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