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Low Census Response Rate Threatens Tens Of Millions In Funding For Maine As Count Nears End

Andrew Harnik
Associated Press
Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham holds up his mask with the words "2020 Census" as he testifies before a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the 2020 Census on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Washington.

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 to 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.”