Wisconsin ranks 2nd highest in nation for census response rates; Concerns for hard-to-reach demographics remain

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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- “It’s so important that we all get counted,” Katie Groeschel said. “Everyone has something to gain from it.”

The Dudley Tower in Wausau on May 20, 2020 (WSAW Photo)

Groeschel’s day job is an administrative assistant at Wausau city hall, but her role on the local complete count census committee is a big focus right now. Like most else in the country, the 2020 census count that began in April is going through a series of delays and evolutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed a lot about how local business, nonprofit, and faith-based liaison committee members now go about their role pushing census response rates in Wausau and Marathon County.

Wisconsin currently ranks second highest in the nation for census response rates at an overall response of 67%, behind neighboring Minnesota’s almost 70%. Response rates across central Wisconsin counties including Marathon, Wood and Portage are even higher, but concerns remain for counties farther north where rates lag significantly behind the state. High response rates in areas like Wausau can likely be attributed to ground-level efforts, where Groeschel and others work together to reach hard-to-count communities like the homeless, ethnic minorities, low income, and renters.

The prize for an accurate population count? The way billions of federal dollars are allotted to communities across the nation over the next decade.

“That’s going to go to redistricting, a lot of the road projects, some of our social programs,” Groeschel noted. Schools, roads, infrastructure, and more are impacted by the flow of federal dollars, according to the U.S. Census bureau website; those decisions are based on census data, and the difference of a few hundred or thousand in a population count can change the flow of federal dollars in coming years.

But in sparsely populated areas like many of the state’s northern counties, the response rates lag far behind. Minocqua town chairman Mark Hartzheim says robust ground-level efforts aren’t significant in his area, and while he’s technically on the census committee there, there haven’t been meetings or coordination to get localized response—regional census employees handle the outreach.

“Up here where we live, the population density is so low and residences are so spread out, that it’s harder to get word from one residence to the next,” he noted. But even in a town like Minocqua where their year-round population is only about 4,500, he says an accurate count is still important.

“You don’t want to find yourself beneath the threshold of eligibility because you didn’t get a complete count in your community,” he said. A small town may not be eligible for a lot in terms of federally-funded programs—but if something becomes available where a required population is 5,000, he doesn’t want to be in a situation where their count could have been more accurate.

Many factors can influence response rates in those northern counties, according to the census bureau’s regional Chicago office, which oversees several Midwestern states including Wisconsin. Large numbers of people who don’t get home mail delivery, poor internet access, high numbers of senior citizens, and a high “snowbird” population can all contribute to populations that are difficult to count. In areas without internet, libraries forced to close during the pandemic have cut off a key way to fill out census responses online (the 2020 census is the first where online responses are widely available).

Beyond that, however, local coordinators say overcoming distrust in the community is one of the more significant obstacles.

“They’re feeling sometimes that this information is going to the government, and they may be deported,” Groeschel noted. “By responding, [they believe] they’re going to give away too much information, that the government’s going to come after them. And that’s just not the case at all. These are protected confidentialities.”

Census data is protected under federal privacy laws, and it is illegal for any census bureau employee to disclose information identifying an individual or business, according to the Census Bureau website. “The FBI and other government entities do not have the legal right to access this information,” it notes.

“Those myths are hard to get through to some people, that’s why a trusted voice is so important,” Groeschel said.