Above: A 2018 Census Planning Database map showing tract levels for low-responses. (map provided by the Center for Population Studies University of Mississippi)

By Alan Burns & Heather Hanna

A new project at the Social Science Research Center is seeking to educate the public about the importance of the 2020 census. The project, sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is a partnership between the SSRC and the Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi.

The 2020 Census is approaching, and Mississippi families stand to be greatly impacted by its outcomes. Every ten years, the United States government conducts a national census, which aims to count the number of people living in the country, identify them demographically, and chart the results. While some may not believe that the census has an impact on their lives, it often helps decide how much federal money is spent in each state. These federal dollars fund programs that benefit Mississippi’s children and families, and the amount received depends on accurate counts of the state’s residents. Additionally, the census is used to determine how many representatives serve Mississippi in the U.S. House of Representatives, which can affect state resources and influence.

Mississippi currently receives around two billion dollars from the federal government each year and has the highest federal reimbursement rate for each dollar spent of any state. Specifically, programs affected include children’s health insurance programs, children’s nutrition programs, special education, foster care, and early childhood programs—all essential for optimal development of the state’s youth. Therefore, low census participation among families with children may cost the state needed dollars and put a strain on agencies already struggling to meet the needs of vulnerable children.

A new project at Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center (SSRC) seeks to educate the public and other stakeholders about the importance of the upcoming census in 2020. The Mississippi YOU COUNT! Collaborative is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy based in Baltimore that provides grants across the country to federal agencies, states, neighborhoods and more to impact children’s well-being.

The project, which is being led by Dr. Heather Hanna, an Assistant Research Professor at the SSRC and Co-Director of Mississippi KIDS COUNT, will entail a partnership between the SSRC and the Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi, led by Dr. John Green.

Green points out that, “Beyond providing a count of the population and its demographic characteristics, the decennial census serves as the foundation for numerous health, educational, and economic data sources. We need the best data possible to inform programming for Mississippi’s children, and this requires community outreach, engagement, and promotion.”

According to Hanna, Mississippi has a very big opportunity in the 2020 census to impact the state and its children. “We want people to realize that the upcoming census is a big opportunity to sustain or increase our current levels of funding for some very important programs,” she stated. “Basic programs for our children, such as Head Start, free and reduced lunches, Medicaid, and foster care are all dependent on census counts; consequently, if we do not do a good job of counting all children, we could possibly lose funding in those areas.”

Hanna stated that the Mississippi YOU COUNT! Collaborative efforts are designed to complement the U.S. Census Bureau’s efforts to ensure a complete count of young children in the state. “Given that Mississippi had an overall participation rate of 69% in the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau is currently engaging in targeted efforts to raise awareness in the state to ensure the most accurate data possible,” she explained.

Across the nation, it’s estimated that almost one million children under the age of five were not counted in the 2010 census. This undercount was due to many reasons, including the rurality of some areas; having high numbers of families living in poverty, renting or living in multigenerational households; and low participation rates among young parents. Minority children were less likely to be counted than White children. Each of these factors will contribute to the difficulty of an accurate count in Mississippi, making the state high risk. Additionally, the 2020 Census will be the first to promote a primarily online response from residents. This will pose an additional challenge for Mississippi given that much of the state suffers from poor connectivity.

Vicki Mack, Partnership Specialist with the Census Bureau’s office in Atlanta, explained, “The Census Bureau is engaged in a variety of recruiting and awareness-raising efforts across the state. For the first time, the Census Bureau will be urging most households to submit responses online via the Internet. Therefore, traditional outreach efforts are even more important, given the new response modes.”

“Residents will be encouraged to respond to the census online using a computer, tablet, or smart phone. Responses can also be provided via telephone 24 hours a day if households call the Census Questionnaire Assistance Center. The Census Bureau will provide online questionnaires and telephone assistance in multiple languages,” she continued.

According to Mack, “Local governments and community groups can help reach hard-to-count populations by creating or joining a Complete Count Committee (CCC). Members of CCCs partner with other trusted voices and influential leaders in their areas who are committed to increasing census participation. A CCC is a volunteer committee established by tribal, state, or local governments and/or community leaders to increase awareness about the census and to motivate residents in the community to respond. The CCC is charged with developing and implementing a plan designed to target the unique characteristics of their community.”

Despite the barriers Mississippi faces, Hanna hopes that collaborating with other groups across the state and releasing targeted materials in hard-to-count areas will help. “With the help of stakeholders, we’re going to develop Mississippi-specific materials to distribute,” she stated. “Young parents are a population of concern in our state, so we want to distribute information that will hopefully help them understand the stakes and encourage their participation. We are also hoping to encourage strategies, such as using public libraries for greater Internet access, and we will target local businesses to let them know how important accurate census counts are for infrastructure and business planning,” she continued.

The project team will also present information to state policymakers, who can impact census counts by encouraging census promotion at the national, state, and local levels. Policymakers can also provide funding for census efforts and work with trusted messengers to ensure the public understands the importance of participation. Hanna concludes, “Hopefully decision-makers, stakeholders, and residents will hear from multiple sources about the significance of the 2020 Census for Mississippi.”

Counting Our Children: The Mississippi YOU COUNT! Collaborative