State, county officials preparing for 2020 census

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This March 23, 2018, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith, File)

The 2020 census count may be 265 days away, but Montana and Flathead County officials already have launched multiple efforts to ensure every citizen is part of the tally.

A census count comes around once every decade, and while the multi-billion dollar process is a federal government undertaking, making sure the count is as accurate as possible is a group venture that calls for outreach efforts from state and county personnel as well.

The decennial census, scheduled to begin April 1, 2020, will determine how nearly $800 billion federal dollars will be distributed throughout the United States. Montana, as a whole, receives almost $2 billion each year in federal money as a result of the census, according to Emilie Ritter Saunders with the Montana Department of Commerce.

Ritter Saunders said the monies received after the census count is crucial for funding about 300 programs in the state, including highway construction, need-based support programs, health care, schools, fire departments and more.

And the allocation of funds is determined by how many Montana residents submit their census information. Ritter Saunders said for each resident not accounted for, the state loses $2,000 every year for the 10-year period.

“It’s absolutely crucial that every resident is counted,” Ritter Saunders said. “You miss just one person and you miss $20,000 for the decade.”

That’s thousands lost in what Ritter Saunders describes as vital funding pots for Montana’s many needs. Flathead County officials weren’t able to pin down how much of the $2 billion went to the county, but said it was significant.

A census count also influences political representation at both the district and state levels. The total count determines the number of members Montana has in the U.S. House of Representatives and it also has the potential to impact voting districts.

The 1990 census resulted in Montana being stripped of its second congressional seat, but officials with the Census Bureau say they believe this year’s count may put the state in a position to regain that seat.

And beyond money and political representation, the census is a constant point of reference for communities large and small when looking at trends in economic development, population, and more. Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner said county officials are constantly using census data as a road map for compiling reports, understanding growth patterns, outlining budgets and more.

“It’s important this count is as accurate as we can make it,” Unterreiner said. “We need good, reliable data for everything we are working on here. There is not a week that goes by that we are not referring to data the census puts out.”

Unterreiner said the chamber recently was approached by officials with the Census Bureau to be part of the Complete Count Committee in Kalispell. The committee will work to provide information to local residents on how and where to submit their census information.

“We want to be here to help the public understand the census,” Unterreiner said. “The committees are vehicles for us to get the information out between now and the count.”

According to Ritter Saunders, there are currently 31 Complete Count Committees in the state. A map on Montana’s official state website shows there are committees established in Kalispell, Polson, Libby, Thompson Falls and elsewhere.

Historically, census information has been gathered by hard copy from residents or by census employees going door-to-door in neighborhoods. However, this year people will have the option to submit their information online.

While the online platform aims to simplify the process, it can be a challenge in rural states such as Montana where internet access can be spotty. But that’s where the counting committees can help — by finding those who are harder to reach, raising awareness, answering questions and encouraging everyone to participate.

According to the official website — 2020census.gov — all households will receive a written invitation to participate in the census by April 2020. Participants will be given the option to participate by phone, mail or online. In May next year, the Census Bureau will be following up with those who have not responded.

The U.S. Census Bureau launched in 1790 and the count is mandated by the U.S. Constitution. The 2020 census will require counting an “increasingly diverse and growing population” of around 330 million people in more than 140 million housing units, the census website notes. This go around is expected to cost more than $15 billion.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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