Census Day 2020 falls on April 1 next year, and it comes with a push for people across Idaho to be counted, whether online, by phone or by mail.

Last week, Idaho Gov. Brad Little declared the 2020 census count a top priority and announced a committee to represent at least 23 different interests in the count, including agriculture, real estate, law enforcement, cities, counties, libraries, state government, veterans and voters.

“I encourage Idahoans to participate,” he said in a press release. “The State Complete Count Committee I am assembling will ensure we achieve a fair, accurate, and complete census count, with special emphasis on enumerating members of historically undercounted population groups.”

Local governments may organize Complete Count Committees of their own, but the Idaho County Commission took no action after a presentation last Tuesday, June 25.

Who in Idaho is historically undercounted?

According to estimates on which federal census workers are making decisions about where and how to focus their efforts to organize Complete Count Committees, parts of Idaho County may see 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 people not self-report for the census. That’s roughly on par with most of the country, a federal mapping tool reveals, but elsewhere in Idaho – such as the cities of Boise and Moscow and parts of Blaine, Clark and Elmore counties – about 1 in 4 people don’t self-report for the census.

Census partnership specialist Mindy Thorp, who had made the presentation to the Idaho County Commissioners, told the Free Press college students are typically hard to count, as are people who live in rural areas and cities. In Pullman, Wash. – home to Washington State University – fewer than 1 in 3 people self-report.

In Idaho County, the feds are anticipating nearly 3,000 people will not self-report to the census, according to the mapping tool.

The census tract that includes Grangeville and White Bird – and a total of about 6,000 people – could see nearly 1,000 people not respond to the census mailer that is planned for March 2020. The tract that includes Cottonwood – and a total of about 2,400 people – could see nearly 500 not respond. The tract that includes Kooskia and Stites and a total of about 4,500 people is estimated to see almost 800 not respond. In southwestern Idaho County – including Riggins and about 1,200 people – the estimated number of non-responders is about 180. In eastern Idaho County – including Elk City and about 2,000 people – the estimate is about 360.

These numbers were figured by the Free Press from map details that are available online at census.gov/roam.

Why does an accurate count even matter?

Federal funding and political representation are at stake.

A census issue went to the Supreme Court earlier this year, with 17 states, seven cities and others having sued the Trump administration over its decision to use the census to ask the people about their citizenship. The government had asked the citizenship of foreign-born people in all but one national census from 1820 to 2000, the Supreme Court noted. The states had argued the questions could stop noncitizens from self-reporting for the count. The Supreme Court recognized that “if noncitizen households are undercounted by as little as 2 percent they [the states] will lose out on federal funds that are distributed on the basis of state population.” The Supreme Court told the federal agency in charge – the Department of Commerce – to reconsider because the agency’s sole stated reason for asking people about their citizenship “seems to have been contrived.”

The Supreme Court opinion, which can be read in full online at supremecourt.gov, noted an accurate count isn’t just about federal funding. The Constitution calls for the census “in order to apportion members of the House of Representatives among the states,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the decision. He went on to spell out the political significance: “Differences of a few thousand people, as between one state and another, can mean a loss or gain of a congressional seat—a matter of great consequence to a state.”

How does the census affect federal spending?

Nationwide, in fiscal year 2016, population data directed 55 programs that spent $883 billion, according to the DC-based George Washington University Institute of Public Policy, according to figures the census specialist, Mindy Thorp, provided to the Idaho County Commission.

That year, in Idaho alone, more than $3.6 billion in federal program spending was guided by the 2010 census data.

Nearly $1.3 billion of that spending was through Medicaid. Six other programs spent $100 million or more in Idaho in part based on the 2010 census: federal direct student loans ($332 million); highway planning and construction ($299 million); SNAP aka the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program aka food stamps ($255 million); Medicare Part B supplemental insurance ($197 million); USDA housing loans ($171 million); and Pell grants ($156 million).

As an expense unto itself, the census is a massive effort that has seen rising costs. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the cost of counting a housing unit rose from $16 in 1970 to around $92 in 2010.

With more than $886 million contracted just for information technology to make this time the first time that people can do the census online, it figures to be an even bigger expense this time around. In 2018, the cost of the 2020 census was estimated at $15.6 billion, which, using a Federal Reserve estimate of 139 million housing units in the country, figures exceed $112 per housing unit. According to documents online at the census.gov website, early planning had called for about 300 offices nationwide and about 1,500 federal employees with the same job title as Mindy Thorp.

Most census employees aren’t specialists; historically, the bureau has hired hundreds of thousands of temporary employees to collect information. The Census Bureau is now in the process of accepting applications and hiring for temporary jobs expected to pay $13.50 an hour in Idaho. See 2020census.gov/jobs for details.

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