U.S. Census: "Hard-to-Count" Memphis Stands to Lose Federal Money, Representation

Jul 12, 2020

Census workers will start going door-to-door this month in select cities but will start their nationwide door-knocking campaign in August.
Credit U.S. Census Bureau

U.S. census workers are expected to start knocking on doors nationwide in August. It’s an effort to reach those who haven’t yet filled out the once-a-decade survey. An accurate population headcount determines the distribution of congressional seats and how the federal government doles out billions of dollars in funding for states and municipalities.

So far, the city of Memphis’ self-response rate is close to 53 percent, which is about five percent lower than Shelby County’s and about 10 percent lower than the national response rate.

Historically, Memphis has struggled with low response rates. The Census Bureau estimates more than 40 percent of Shelby County residents live in so-called “hard-to-count” neighborhoods— areas that in 2010 had some of the worst response rates in the country.

Many factors can inhibit participation—poor literacy, a lack of stable housing, no Internet access or language barriers. Another big obstacle is a mistrust of the government, especially among minority communities.

While door knocking boosts the count, the goal is still to get people to fill out the form by themselves either online, over the phone or through the mail.

Justin Merrick, executive director of the Center for Transforming Communities, says it takes trusted, local voices to encourage people to formally share demographic information about everyone living in their household. 

“People know what the census is, but they may not know the specifics as to why it’s relevant to them right now,” he says. “Filling out the census is the way to be able to get more money and resources allocated for the types of things that we actually want to see happen in our own communities.” 

One 2015 analysis estimates that for each uncounted resident, the state of Tennessee loses more than one thousand federal dollars annually for programs related to health and education.  

Merrick’s organization is nudging residents with census reminders at places where federal assistance directly affects them, such as at food banks.  

The organization is also using social media, church networks and local performing artists to spread the word in more creative ways. In light of recent social movements, Merrick is also pushing the message that counting Black and brown communities is correlated to political power, as the census determines a state’s congressional representation and how districts are drawn. 

“When you talk about power, it comes in numbers,” he says. “The way that we increase power is that we have increased numbers.” 

It’s not too late to fill out the form, the massive federal counting campaign ends October 31.