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U.S. Census Bureau Partnership Specialist Taran Parsons speaks with students and others about the 2010 Census during a U. S. Census road tour in 2010 at Marshall University. Special efforts to reach the state’s entire population will be needed for the 2020 Census, which launches next spring.

West Virginia faces a challenging task in the coming year, and if it’s not approached aggressively the state and its citizens stand to lose out.

The task is obtaining an accurate count of all West Virginia residents in the 2020 Census, which gets underway next spring. The rural nature of most of the Mountain State already poses one significant hurdle for ensuring everyone is counted, but how the census will be conducted this year adds another layer of difficulty.

For the 2020 population count, the U.S. Census Bureau plans to do most of the data collection via an online questionnaire. Considering the relatively large percentage of West Virginians without reliable broadband internet service, that means many residents are at risk of being missed.

Failure to accurately count the state’s population has significant repercussions, especially for a state with economic troubles and one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. As pointed out in a recent report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the census will determine how much money the state could receive to help its most vulnerable citizens through programs like food stamps, Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers.

Here are the ways that West Virginians could lose out from an undercount of its residents, according to the report by the Gazette-Mail:

n Count Me in WV, a coalition of nearly 30 organizations aiming to ensure an accurate census count, said the state could miss out on $7 billion in federal funding over the next decade due to an inaccurate count.

n Each missed person in the 2010 Census resulted in a loss of $1,107 in West Virginia, according to the George Washington Institute for Public Policy, reducing federal dollars to a handful of programs, including Medicaid, the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program and federal foster care assistance.

n The census data is used to calculate the state’s dollar amount in Pell Grants, which is federal money for college students based on financial need.

n A 2017 report from Election Data Services said that if West Virginia’s population continues to shrink, one of the state’s three congressional seats could be lost by 2022. The prediction was based on census numbers from 2016.

As you can see, all of those programs could be affected — as well as the people who could benefit from them — if the count fails to accurately reflect the state’s population.

It’s encouraging to see many organizations coming together to form Count Me in WV so they can use their respective networks to reach the state’s population, particularly those hard-to-count groups such as college students, the homeless and the many grandparents who have found themselves responsible for raising their grandchildren.

As we approach the 2020 Census count, it behooves all West Virginians to make an extra effort to see that everyone is included, whether that means providing access to internet service or ensuring that someone without internet service can access a paper form, which remains as an option.

The state’s collective well-being depends on including everyone.

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