Some disappointing news, for those of us who like to finish first, is that New Hampshire slides in at 24th among the states in terms of how many people took the initiative to stand up and be counted for the U.S. census. A self-response rate of nearly 67% puts us in the narrow space, statistically anyway, between South Dakota and Nevada. Massachusetts, where slightly better than 69% of households took time to return a census form by mail or posted online, finished a few spots up the list at 20th.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, despite wrangling over how much time the Census Bureau gets to do its counting and submit numbers to the president, the agency as of Oct. 5 had tallied of 99.7% of U.S. households. Nationally, two-thirds of households were counted of their own initiative. Census workers and local partners then called or fanned out in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and elsewhere to knock on doors where no one had responded, successfully getting in touch with nearly all of the remaining third of the country.

The outcome of the high-stakes count this year was slightly better compared to the last census a decade ago, when the bureau says the same effort recorded 99.6% of U.S. households.

The census is meant to tally every living soul in the United States, of course, as required by the Constitution. And as good as 99.7% sounds, it means roughly 385,740 households have yet to be reached. That’s nearly a million people not recorded, which would’ve been something like one-quarter of a young country’s population back when the mandate of a decennial census was put to parchment.

Officials at the Census Bureau consider a 99% count in every state a benchmark of a complete census, according to National Public Radio. As of Oct 5, only half a dozen states were short of that. All but Montana were in the Deep South.

A political and legal battle still rages over how much time should be spent buttoning up what’s supposed to be a definitive survey. The Commerce Department imposed a Sept. 30 deadline, later pushed to Oct. 5, to finish the census. That was challenged by civil rights groups and local governments who convinced a federal judge to reinstate the Census Bureau’s timetable of Oct. 31. A circuit court in San Francisco agreed, but the decision likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

At issue is how much time the bureau gets to crunch numbers for an effort that’s been complicated by a pandemic. The Trump administration and Commerce Department want the work wrapped up by year’s end, as required by the Constitution. The bureau says it needs more time, due largely to the challenges of COVID-19. Hanging in the balance is how $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year is funneled to state and local governments, not to mention how congressional districts are divided among the states.

“Accuracy matters,” Melissa Sherry, representing the coalition, told the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a virtual hearing on Oct. 5, according to an Associated Press report. Compressing the timetable for the Census Bureau to do its work, she said, would be “extremely troubling.”

All of us are served by an accurate count — something that’s harder to achieve not just because of a pandemic but when the work is slowed by language barriers or households that are both scattered and not connected by internet or even reliable telephone service, such as those in poor, rural America.

No matter how this legal battle is resolved, we can take some solace in the fact that two-thirds of America fulfilled a critical civic obligation. Census takers and their local partners nearly took us to the finish line for the rest.

For households that haven’t responded to the 2020 Census, visit the bureau’s website at 2020census.gov.

 

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