Early next year, around the time people are filing their income tax returns, households will be expected to submit their census forms.
The forms are used to determine how many people each state sends to the U.S. House of Representatives. It's no secret West Virginia will likely lose one of its three seats, and thus one of its five votes in the Electoral College, once the census results are compiled. The change will affect the 2022 elections to Congress and the 2024 election for president.
It's not just that West Virginia has a had a downward trend in population for the past few decades. There are only 435 seats available in the House, so a state can still gain population but lose a House seat if its growth is slower than others'.
According to a House apportionment calculator provided by the University of Michigan, based on 2017 population estimates West Virginia would lose one seat in the House after the 2020 census. So would Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and New York. Texas would gain two seats, while Florida, North Carolina and Oregon would each pick up one. Notice that two of the states popular with migrating West Virginians — Florida and North Carolina — are likely to gain a seat.
The census will also determine how legislatures in each state apportion their membership. In West Virginia, we're likely to see the Eastern Panhandle and the Potomac Highlands gain members and thus influence and the southern coal counties lose.
The census affects more than just politics, though. As noted by Herald-Dispatch reporter Travis Crum in Sunday's edition, an undercount of the state's population 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.
These programs include 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," said Laura Lee Haddad, executive director of the West Virginia Nonprofit Association. "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."
A complete census count is more challenging in Mingo, Logan and Wyoming counties, where 100% of the population is considered hard to count, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's map of hard-to-count communities. In some counties, such as Cabell and Kanawha, large swaths of 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.
It could be that an individual household does not rely on Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP or another program that relies on federal money. But many households in our three states do. When the redbud trees bloom again, it's time to be sure every West Virginia, Ohioan and Kentuckian is counted.