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How many people live in West Virginia? How many people live in McDowell County?

Those are good questions. It’s the job of the Census Bureau to answer them, and so far the process has not worked well.

A poor response rate to this year’s census questionnaires combined with a method that favors urban areas over rural ones plus a temporary shutdown of door-to-door surveying caused by the coronavirus could mean West Virginia’s population will suffer a severe undercount when final numbers are released this fall.

As reported by Caity Coyne in this past weekend’s editions of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Herald-Dispatch, West Virginia’s response rate to the 2020 census trails a majority of the country.

Only 53.3% of West Virginians have completed the census, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Only Alaska, Maine, New Mexico and Puerto Rico have a lower participation rate.

If the response rate doesn’t increase, West Virginians have a lot to lose, said Carey Jo Grace, an organizer with Our Future West Virginia, who is leading the group’s census campaign.

“West Virginia is one of the states that is most heavily dependent on federal funding, and a lot of that funding — roughly $7 billion or so — is, right off the top, based only on our census data and our population and demographics recorded by the census count,” Grace said. “If we don’t count every person, we lose out on real dollars. There’s a real effect.”

As of Friday, Jefferson County had the state’s highest percentage of census participation, with 68.1% of residents there responding. McDowell County, with 22.5% responding, was last in the state.

In McDowell and other rural counties, areas not easily accessible make door-to-door visits difficult, Grace said. Those areas also tend to have limited internet access, which further complicates the effort since this is the first time the census is being conducted mostly online.

Limited internet access is a problem. Tied in to that is that West Virginia’s population tends to be older than the national average, and many older people just don’t use the internet as much as younger people.

In McDowell County, hundreds of census mailers never made it to residents, as the federal agency used physical addresses — which in many rural communities aren’t used for mail — instead of post office boxes. Census mailings do not contain the resident’s name, just an address.

This all adds up to a problem whose effects could last until the next census in 2030. Nationally, more is at stake than the disbursement of money through federal programs. The census determines how many members West Virginia and other states will have in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade. And that is the basis of each state’s number of votes in the Electoral College for the election of the president in 2024 and 2028.

Inside states, the census determines how legislatures apportion districts. In West Virginia, that means the House of Delegates and the State Senate.

Bottom line: If you want your area to have influence and access to programs that help people in need, make sure every person is counted. Time is running out. Your state and your community need your cooperation.

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