Low census response rate threatens tens of millions in funding for Maine as count nears end
Maine has among the lowest response rates of any state for the U.S. census, and advocates are concerned an undercount could jeopardize federal funding for the next decade after the government announced a shortened timeline to complete the count.
Only 55.2 percent of Maine households had responded to the survey, compared with 63.1 percent of households nationally, according to the most recent data release. Only three states — West Virginia, Alaska and New Mexico — had lower response rates than Maine.
The 2020 census was the first decennial count conducted mostly online, a challenge for rural states like Maine where broadband access is limited in some areas. It was further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which delayed the wide deployment of census workers.
The Census Bureau indicated earlier this year it would allow households to respond to the survey through Oct. 31, a month later than usual. The agency also seemed to be seeking an extension from Congress to complete its operations until April 2021 due to the pandemic, but the Trump administration reversed course earlier this week, setting a deadline of Sept. 30 for households to respond and saying the agency must submit its final report by the end of the year.
The federal government has the ability to estimate Maine’s population without the census, but the official count guides congressional redistricting and some federal funding. The 2010 census resulted in a slight undercount here. Advocates and lawmakers are worried it will be worse this year, which could cost Maine tens of millions of dollars each year for the next decade.
“Our view is that that compromises the census,” said Helen Hemminger, a research associate at the Maine Children’s Alliance, one of many organizations in the state working to encourage census participation. “There are many places where people have not been counted, and Maine is probably going to lose out more because we’re more rural.”
In 2010, Maine had a self-response rate of 57.4 percent. When households do not self-respond, the bureau sends workers door-to-door to collect data, with the goal of preventing an undercount. The agency launched its non-response follow up in mid-July and will continue on-the-ground efforts in Maine until the end of September.
“We would prefer a 100 percent self-response rate,” said Jeff Behler, director for the Census Bureau office covering the northeast, including Maine. “We know that’s ideal. It’s the highest quality data we ever get when a household self responds, rather than us having to knock on doors or talk to a neighbor, or, at the end of the census, impute data.”
Though the Census Bureau’s operations help cover most of the gap in households that do not respond, the agency estimated that its official count in Maine missed about 8,500 people in 2010. One study from the GW Institute of Public Policy found that the state lost $1,642 in federal funding per year for each person not counted, totaling nearly $140 million over 10 years.
Federal programs that use census population data to determine funding include Medicaid, Head Start and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, as well as funding for highways and energy assistance for low-income families.
Some reasons for Maine’s low response rate this year are not indicative of an undercount — for example, the state has a high percentage of vacation homes, which still count as households, but owners are less likely to respond if no one lives there year-round.
But Maine also has a high percentage of households that only have post office boxes or are too remote for mail and instead receive hand-delivered packages from the census that were delayed this year due to the virus. That raises concerns that the accelerated ending could make it difficult for the federal agency to get an accurate count of these households, Hemminger said.
She added that children are also typically more difficult to count in the census, and could be undercounted if the process was rushed in the coming months, particularly as the shutdown of schools removed one avenue to remind families to complete the survey.
The response rate in Maine so far varies widely by county. Sagadahoc County had the highest response rate at 64.9 percent, while the heavily rural Franklin and Piscataquis counties had the lowest response rates, both around 38 percent.
Areas where the population is undercounted in the census can also end up with less representation. At the federal level, Maine is likely to keep its two congressional districts for the foreseeable future despite undercounts, but a skewed response rate between the two districts could affect where towns fall during redistricting.
Congress could vote to extend the bureau’s deadline to complete the decennial count, though no proposal has gained momentum. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday saying that ending the count early could “disproportionately disadvantage hard-to-count communities.”
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement Thursday night that the Bureau should make every effort to finish its work by the end of the year, but called the decision to move up the date to finish the count “not feasible.” Barring changes from Congress, individuals who have yet to fill out the census can do so until the end of September by visiting the Bureau’s website.
“We’re on a full-court press between now and Sept. 30,” Behler said.