By TRAVIS CRUM
HUNTINGTON - Continued losses in West Virginia's population heading into the 2020 census threaten one of the state's seats in Congress and could cut into the nearly $7 billion in federal funding the state now receives each year.
Exacerbating the problem is the potential for an undercount as more than 24% of West Virginians are considered to be living in hard-to-count communities. Meanwhile, the census is moving primarily online for the first time when an estimated quarter of the state's population has little-to-no internet access.
Nonprofit groups said these are significant challenges to ensure a complete census count in a state that has seen deaths outweighing births within the past year and more people moving out of the state than the number moving in.
"Without that accurate account, we really are challenged with ensuring we receive the kind of federal dollars that will help us grow our population and our economy," said Laura Lee Haddad, executive director of the West Virginia Nonprofit Association.
At stake following the 2020 census are several hundred federal financial assistance programs that rely on census data to determine the amount of funds given to states, counties and cities.
These programs include the Medical Assistance Program (Medicaid), Medicare Part B, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Section 8 Project-Based Housing and Head Start/Early Head Start, among others. An undercount on the census will affect the amount of money the state and counties receive for these programs starting in 2021.
"The federal monies that come down from the federal government to West Virginia are the programs that are so critical to us," Haddad said. "There's adoptions, childcare and nutrition, our military veterans and all of our health and human service organizations. All of these are critical and are determined in many cases by our population base."
Haddad's association and Philanthropy West Virginia have since asked Gov. Jim Justice to create a Complete Count Committee, which would work to eliminate an undercount and spread awareness about the census. Justice's administration has committed to starting the committee and Haddid said she has recommended a list of names of people to possibly serve on it.
The committee, which will need to be formed before the end of the year, will have plenty of work to do.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people living in "hard-to-count" communities require greater resources to reach and are more likely to be missed in the people count.
These communities are found across the state, but most share defining characteristics that may make an undercount likely, including rural, low-income, high-immigrant and homeless populations, as well as children, renters and ethnic or racial minorities, according to Census officials.
A complete census count is more challenging in certain counties like Mingo, Logan and Wyoming, where 100% of the population is considered hard-to-count. In some counties, such as Cabell and Kanawha, large swaths of its cities risk being missed in the 2020 census. In Huntington, those living downtown and in the Fairfield neighborhood will most likely require door-to-door followup visits from a census worker. In Charleston, a large section of North Charleston will likely require follow-up visits.
West Virginia received more than $6.76 billion from 55 federal programs last year, with funding levels guided by data derived from the 2010 Census, according to analysis from the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.
"For communities to be effective economically and for business development, education health and so on, a lot of their funding streams from the feds come through based upon census figures," said Paul Daugherty, president and CEO of Philanthropy West Virginia.
Philanthropy West Virginia is a grant-making agency providing many communities with foundation dollars leveraged alongside federal and state money, he said. Communities stand to lose tens of millions of federal dollars necessary for things like public safety dollars necessary to combat the opioid crisis and infrastructure to improve water and sewer systems.
Daugherty said his organization has made ensuring a fair and complete census a top policy priority. His organization will work with county commissioners and city mayors to make them aware of the potential loss in federal dollars.
For the Head Start/Early Head Start program, an undercount of families with young children in poverty leads to less funding for Head Start and Early Head Start expansion.
"Each program is funded so many federal dollars for how many students and families they serve," said Lori Milam, executive director of the West Virginia Head Start Association. "Each program is federally funded to serve a certain amount of students, so it's important to enroll that exact amount of students throughout the year and they have to maintain that throughout the year."
Milam said she intends to distribute information about how to complete the census with the 20 Head Starts and 13 Early Start programs in her association.
For programs like Medicaid, an undercount of the state population could result in a higher per capita income among residents, resulting in lower reimbursement rates. Reimbursement rates would also be affected in the Medicare program due to an incorrect count.
An undercount would create a less-accurate estimate of local unemployment, affecting a region's eligibility to receive a waiver in the SNAP food-assistance program. These programs fall under the umbrella of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
"There is no way to predict the implication of federal funding based on a decrease in the state's population," said Jessica Holstein, assistant director of communications for the WV DHHR, in an email.
Haddad, whose association represents more than 10,000 nonprofits, said it's premature for her organizations to plan for any potential cuts in funding. She said her association is focused on getting the word out about the importance of participating in the census and a need to hire census workers.
The U.S. Census Bureau's state office in Beckley recently announced it was hiring office workers, recruiting assistants, supervisors, clerks and census takers ahead of 2020. People were asked to visit www.2020Census.gov/Jobs or contact 1-855-JOB-2020.
A population decline would likely result in the loss of a congressional seat following the 2020 census, which would be the first time West Virginia has lost a seat since 1993.
The result of a decennial census, which is a census year ending in zero, determines how seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are distributed among the 50 states. Significant population changes determine which states will gain or lose representation.
The Mountain State needed to gain more than 20,000 people within the last decade to hold onto one of its three congressional districts. The loss in representation is all but guaranteed as West Virginia has reported a loss in population for five years in a row, becoming the fastest-shrinking of any state in the nation relative to population size.
As of July 1, 2018, West Virginia's total population was 1,805,832 people, which is 11,216 fewer than the year prior. According to population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau, 50 of West Virginia's 55 counties lost population between 2017 and 2018.
As a result, West Virginia will be one of nine states to lose a seat, according to a report on census estimates from Election Data Services. Illinois, the only other state besides West Virginia to report population loss, will likely lose two seats. Those seats would likely go to nine or 10 states reporting significant population increases, including East Coast states like North Carolina and Florida.
West Virginia is represented in the U.S. House by Reps. David McKinley, R-Wheeling; Alex Mooney, R-Charles Town; and Carol Miller, R-Huntington. If West Virginia does lose significant population following the 2020 census, state law does not set a particular deadline requiring the state Legislature to redraw congressional districts.
West Virginia lost its 4th District in 1993, which had been held by Democrat Nick Rahall, who went on the represent the 3rd District for several years afterward. That district was eliminated as a result of population loss following the 1990 census.
Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.
Census Day, the one chance each decade to count the nation's population, will be April 1, 2020, in America.
If all goes as planned, this will be the first census held online as the U.S. Census Bureau seeks to skip paper questionnaires that were mailed to every home in the past.
Instead, households will receive mailed invitations beginning March 12, 2020, to complete the census either online, by phone or by paper at request.
Nearly 95% of households will receive a mailed invitation, while at least 5% will have their invitations dropped off by a census worker. Fewer than 1% of households will be counted in person by a census worker rather than being invited to complete it on their own.
If the agency receives no response from a household by Census Day, it will send reminder postcards until eventually a paper questionnaire is mailed out. The agency says it will follow up in person with all households that do not respond.
According to federal law, people may be fined $100 for not replying to a census and $500 for answering questions falsely.