Billions Ride on Pandemic-Hampered Census
COVID-19 is quietly threatening southwestern Pennsylvania’s share of billions of federal dollars that will be critical if the region is to recover from the pandemic with hopes for a future of growth and vitality intact.
For months, the pandemic has disrupted the decennial census, putting at risk efforts to get a complete count of the region’s population, which will determine its share of federal funds to spend on everything from highways and bridges to healthcare and education for the next 10 years.
More than $2 billion in census-driven federal dollars flow here each year, data provided by the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission suggest.
Every resident left uncounted in this year’s census could cost Pennsylvania and its counties more than $2,000 in federal funds a year, according to the state. By that estimate, missing a single family four could cost the region $80,000 in federal dollars before the next decennial census is taken in 2030.
An accurate census count is also a key tool for planning the future of the region and its people, starting with plotting a course for recovering from the social and economic hardships caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
“The census tells the story of our region,” said Stefani Pashman, chief executive officer of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. “When we are thinking about how to respond to this pandemic and position ourselves moving forward, it’s imperative to know who is in our backyard, who we’re trying to serve and what their needs are.”
Complete count campaigns were just starting when southwestern Pennsylvania counties reported their first coronavirus cases. Within weeks, they were scrambling to adjust, exploring greater use of non-contact tactics, such as social media, when stay-at-home orders and social distancing restrictions prevented them from holding public events and canvassing, which had been their most widely used and effective outreach strategies.
By June, the rate of people who had completed the census online or over the phone was lower in all southwestern Pennsylvania counties compared to their “self-response” rate for the 2010 census, U.S. Census Bureau tracking data show.
The Census Bureau last month began mailing paper surveys to those who hadn’t completed them online or by phone. In the past, enumerators would knock on doors as a last attempt to get those who hadn’t responded to fill out a survey. But the pandemic casts doubt on whether the tactic will be effective this year, or even possible—placing a higher premium on getting people to take the census on their own.
The good news is the census deadline has been extended three months through October. And self-response rates are edging closer to 2010 tallies in several counties.
The rate of residents who’ve taken the census so far range from 54.6 percent in Greene County to 73.8 percent in Butler. No county had a self-response rate higher than 74 percent in 2010. In Allegheny, the region’s largest county, nearly 67 percent of residents have taken the census. In 2010, the county’s final self-response rate was 71.3 percent.
Much at stake
This year’s census count is highly influential. It will, for example, determine the number of seats Pennsylvania holds in Congress. It will define the region for a decade in mountains of data that researchers, planners, businesses and other will study to inform policy and business decisions, identify local strengths and weaknesses and lend insight into the quality of life of its residents.
The monetary stakes are high. Census data is the heart of funding formulas that federal agencies use to decide how more than $675 billion is shared among states and counties to spend on such staples as Medicaid, food and housing assistance, student grants for colleges and trade schools, school lunches, maternal and child health, fire departments and hospitals.
Federal transportation funding is particularly impactful. In 2019, nearly $400 million in federal transportation funds flowed into southwestern Pennsylvania. The sum accounted for 70 percent of the $573 million spent through the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission’s transportation improvement program on roads, bridges, public transit, traffic signals, bike lanes and other projects.
“Transportation is important to everybody. If we didn’t have that federal funding, we’d be in a lot of trouble,” said Andy Waple, the commission’s director of transportation planning.
Federal transportation funding will loom even larger in the wake of the pandemic. PennDOT officials warn that the state budget for transportation construction, maintenance and other projects, which rely on a gasoline tax, will fall at least $1 billion short due to a sharp drop in travel during the coronavirus outbreak.
Census data also influences the region’s appeal to people and businesses, determining the share of federal funds it receives for healthcare, education, human services, community development and other quality of life issues. And census data helps to shape strategies for attracting and retaining people and businesses, which has long been a struggle in southwestern Pennsylvania.
In its recent regional plan, for example, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development argues that better economic and business conditions alone aren’t enough to achieve growth and vitality in the years to come. “Not only do we need to grow jobs and investment and keep our economy robust, we have to do it while improving the quality of life of our people and making a place where people want to live, where businesses thrive, where we have adequate infrastructure, education system, parks—all of the amenities people want and are attracted to,” Pashman said.