The 2020 census is an opportunity for Alaska to add money to the state’s coffers.
Historically, Alaska has been among the worst states in the union at responding to the every-10-years population count, which affects cities, the state and the rest of the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The census is the one chance we get every 10 years to be counted, and it’s what determines federal funding distribution,” said Barb Miranda, partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau in Juneau and former mayor of Gustavus. “It’s also for state redistricting, so it’s power and money.”
In 2010, Alaska had a 64-percent census participation rate, according to the Census Bureau,which was 10 percentage points behind the national participation rate of 74 percent. Juneau’s response rate actually exceeded the national rate by 1 percentage point, but that was easily the top response rate in Southeast and an outlier.
For each Alaskan counted about $2,959 in federal funds go to the state, which translates to about $2.1 billion per year, according to Census Bureau figures.
While each person who does not respond in a timely manner doesn’t necessarily go uncounted, a lack of response does make an undercount, and lost funds, more likely. The impact of undercounts is compounded because the count is essentially locked in for a decade.
The census bureau estimates Alaska’s population is 737,438. A 1% undercount — 7,374 people — would cost the state $21.82 million per year based on the $2,959 figure. That’s money that could do a lot for a state that just had a knock-down-drag-out budget fight.
What’s being done to help complete the count
There are efforts happening at both state and local levels to help the federal bureau improve participation rates.
At the state level, that means $250,000 in state money for the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the formation of a Complete Count Commission and up to $400,000 that could come office of the governor to support census efforts.
“Last decade, there was no appropriation for the census,” said Liz Brooks, research analyst for the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, in a phone interview.
Legislative Finance Director David Teal said in an interview that doesn’t mean that there was no state money spent on the census in 2010. But there wasn’t a clearly labeled appropriation.
Teal said the money budgeted for the census this year could be used for advertising, contract work and other efforts to make sure addresses are correct and complete.
“That’s part of what labor does is make sure everyone gets counted,” Teal said.
While up to $650,000 would be a step up in census spending for Alaska, it pales in comparison to what other states are reportedly spending on the 2020 census. California is expected to spend over $100 million on the census. Illinois is also expected to spend tens of millions on the census.
However, other states including Texas opted to spend no state money on the census. Some state governments may reason it is up to the census bureau, local governments and nonprofits to shoulder census-associated costs and not want some hard-to-count populations to be counted for political reasons.
Miranda said Alaska’s state efforts help with outreach to small, rural communities that are especially difficult to reach and typically have a low participation rate.
“There are some good efforts coming out of state agencies,” Miranda said.
Why money is being spent
The funds that were ultimately budgeted to help with a complete count took an unusual route to get there. They began life as a request from the governor for $1 million for redistricting, Teal said.
The Legislature turned into a potential total of $650,000 for the census, which provides data that’s used for redistricting, and $50,000 for redistricting.
“The redistricting office absolutely needs a little bit of money this fiscal year to start up, but it doesn’t need full funding until we start to get census results,” said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, in a phone interview.
Plus, he said both Democratic and Republican lawmakers saw value in a more complete census count.
“Legislators on both sides of the aisle really realized a complete count is important for Alaska,” Kiehl said. “I do think that the state’s effort this year should be more robust than the last time around.”
At a local level, Juneau is one of many Southeast municipalities with a Complete Count Committee.
Committee Chair Mila Cosgrove, who is also deputy city manager for City and Borough of Juneau, said the committee is working to identify populations that might be hard-to-count and saturating the community.
She said there’s not money being put directly into the issue, but staff time and “ancillary support” have been put into the committee’s efforts.
Cosgrove said while the city would see roundabout benefits from the state receiving increased federal funds, there’s also a direct reason it’s important for there to be an accurate census count.
“I think population in Southeast Alaska in general has been dropping,” she said. “We want to make sure we count everyone who is here to make sure our representation is accurate.”
According to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the state as a whole has been losing residents, and Juneau’s population has fallen each of the past three years from 33,128 residents in 2015 to 32,247 in 2018.
Still a few months away
While complete count committees are gearing up now —the next Juneau committee meeting is Nov. 15 — most of the action is still months away.
Online responses to the census won’t open until March 12, Miranda said. Census day isn’t until April 1, and follow-up efforts begin if someone does not respond by May.
She said the U.S. Census Bureau is still hiring in Southeast Alaska and locals are wanted since folks tend to open the door for people they recognize.
While, Miranda said that trust can be helpful, she said it’s also important to know that census responses are completely confidential. It’s illegal for any Census Bureau employee to share census or survey information that identifies an individual or business.
“It’s completely confidential, it’s safe to respond, it’s easy to respond,” Miranda said.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.