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Montana has a lot at stake in 2020 census
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Missoulian editorial

Montana has a lot at stake in 2020 census

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In this year of big and important issues, the significance of the once-a-decade nationwide census is at real risk of being overshadowed.

There’s only a few weeks left for Montanans to grasp this opportunity to stand up and be counted. After Sept. 30, it will become a matter of tallying our losses.

Every single Montana resident who isn’t accounted for will mean a measurable financial loss. The federal government relies on an accurate demographic report from each state in order to apportion billions of dollars in federal aid of all kinds, from education to health care to transportation. The data is also used to determine fair market rent rates and enforce fair lending practices. Further, researchers make use of this information to track trends in migration patterns, for instance. Businesses use it when deciding where to open locations.

And of course, population changes from state to state may result in changes to the U.S. House of Representatives. States that gains a lot of residents are likely to gain congressional representatives – and those seats are taken from states that don’t have as many residents. Given its rate of growth since the previous census, Montana is in the running to gain a second representative.

Montana has a lot at stake this census cycle, and we will be stuck with the results for the next 10 years. Yet that urgency isn’t reflected in Montana’s lackluster response rate of just 81.5%. That’s lower than the national average of 89%. And given the array of response methods, it’s inexcusable as well. The U.S. Census Bureau form can be filled out online, by phone or by mail.

At last count last week, our neighbors in Idaho were leading the nation with a total response rate – that’s self-responses plus follow-up responses - approaching 99%. At every single one of the six other states in the running to gain House seats were clocking higher response rates than Montana: Arizona (81.7%), Colorado (89.7%), Florida (84.2%), North Carolina (83.8%), Oregon (95.6%) and Texas (87.5%).

It would be a shame indeed if Montana were to lose out on a second congressional representative, one sorely needed in a state not only of our growing population of over 1 million residents but in light of its expansive geographical size, merely because too few people filled out a census form that takes 10 minutes at most to complete.

Across the nation, census workers have had the most difficulty following up in rural areas, which often suffer from lack of solid internet access, on tribal reservations and among minority communities. The Montana Census, which receives help with education and outreach from the state Department of Commerce, notes that in our state, the population at highest risk of being undercounted is children younger than 5 years old.

Census data is used to distribute more than $2 billion in federal funding to more than 300 federal programs in Montana – each year. In 2017, roughly 40% of the state’s total budget was covered by federal funds.

But even 10 years ago, the Bureau estimates it undercounted nearly 5% of Native Americans in the United States. Montana’s tribal leaders have redoubled efforts to close that gap this year, but they are fighting against a pandemic that is also hitting reservations disproportionately hard, and up against a fast-approaching deadline still being debated in federal court. The Census Bureau suspended field operations in March and did not re-deploy workers to make in-person visits to non-responding households until after coronavirus cases had begun to decline in May. To make up for the lost time, it had planned to continue operations through the end of October.

The state and each of the eight tribes within Montana have teamed up to promote the census and form local Complete Count Committees to address the unique challenges of reaching every member of their particular communities. They have each also named a tribal liaison to troubleshoot problems as they arise.

Montana’s tribes stand to lose millions in job training assistance alone. The state estimates that this year’s census has reached only 24% of its residents living on tribal lands so far, largely due to delays and limitations related to the coronavirus. Each individual Montana resident who is not counted represents a loss of about $2,000 a year in federal money.

And collectively, an undercount in Montana’s population risks underrepresentation in Congress.

It’s up to each of us to make sure our households have filled out a census form. It doesn’t hurt to check in with our neighbors and ask if they’d had a chance to do the same. Remind them that the clock is ticking, and that they respond at their convenience online at, by calling 1-844-330-2020, or by mailing in that Census form they should have already received the mail.

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