Six things to know about the U.S. Census and Florida
Census Tract 119.04 in Hillsborough County constitutes a perfect rectangle in a densely populated section of West Tampa just north of Al Lopez Park. Two grocery stores — a Walmart Neighborhood Market and an El Oso Blanco Supermarket — anchor its southern border along Hillsborough Avenue, while Bill Currie Ford and other car dealerships dot the tract’s western boundary along Dale Mabry Highway. It’s bounded by North Himes Avenue to the east and West Lambright Street to the north.
It’s the group of aging apartment complexes tucked between the busy commercial thoroughfares, however, that is the real concern and challenge for the U.S. Census Bureau. Residents living in the Courtney Cove Apartments, Pinetree Apartments, Silver Lake Apartments and Coopers Pond Apartments are some of the toughest people in the state to count.
The Census Bureau defines a tract as “hard to count” if 73% or fewer residents return their Census questionnaires. In the 2010 Census, the mail-back rate for tract 119.04 was 52%, making it one of the worst-performing locales in the Sunshine State. (The average mail-back rate in Florida as a whole is about 80%).
The West Tampa community’s demographics provide some clues to the counting conundrum. Approximately 47% of the people living in tract 119.04 are Hispanic, 32% are African-American and 46% are renters — groups the Census Bureau identifies as less likely to participate in its survey. About 16% of households in the community have no home internet service or have dial-up only service, another predictor of poor participation.
The Tampa neighborhood is just one of many low performers in the state. Roughly 15% of Floridians — about 3 million people — live in hard-to-count communities.
Why should Floridians care about an undercount? The U.S. Constitution specifies that the results of the Census, conducted once every decade, determine how many seats each state gets in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives. Florida picked up two seats after the last Census and is expected to gain two more following the 2020 count, which would break its tie with New York for the third-biggest congressional delegation.
That’s assuming all goes well. A large enough undercount could cause Florida to lose seats or not gain any — a scenario that could have been plausible had the Trump administration succeeded in including a citizenship question on the Census form. U.S. Senate seats are unaffected by the Census. Each state is represented by two senators regardless of population.
The head count also determines how hundreds of billions of federal dollars are divvied up among state and local governments. The U.S. government relies on the numbers in allocating funding for 132 programs, including everything from Medicaid to school breakfasts (Head Start) to Pell grants to food stamps to highway planning funds, to name a few.
When the head count is wrong, the flow of dollars suffers for quite some time. The 2000 Census, for instance, missed about 200,670 Floridians — and as Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro points out, the counting errors were baked into allocations for a decade. “That equated to $225 million in lost federal grants and aid to Florida we were lawfully entitled to but didn’t get because we didn’t have a proper count. So over a 10-year period, we lost somewhere close to $3 billion,” Calabro says.
He fears that without better participation, Florida’s undercount in 2020 could grow to 300,000 — roughly the equivalent of not counting the city of Orlando — and cost the state billions in federal aid.
With such high stakes, here are six important things to keep in mind about the 2020 Census count in Florida.
1 How the Process Works
While April 1, 2020, is officially Census Day, the process of counting the country’s inhabitants is a months-long marathon, not a one-day sprint. In March 2020, Census postcards will begin arriving in mailboxes. Most people — 75% to 80% — will receive a notice instructing them to take the survey online, and about a quarter will get a paper survey.
Later in March, those who haven’t responded will get a reminder in the mail — and another one after that if they still don’t respond. In April, non-responders will receive a questionnaire in the mail, followed by an “it’s-not-too-late” postcard.