Source: Orlando Sentinel
When a pile of money and political power are on the table, you’d think a state would do all it could to get what it deserves.
If Florida comes to mind, think again.
The 2020 Census is looming, and the state appears poised to let billions of dollars slip through its fingers. The population count is a massive undertaking with a simple end result.
The more people a state has, the more money it gets.
We’re talking $675 billion to $900 billion a year in federal funding a year. The Census also determines which states gain or lose congressional seats.
Instead of gearing up to count every Florida resident, state lawmakers have shown careless indifference toward the Census.
That’s especially worrisome when your state is bursting with groups the U.S. Census Bureau classifies as “Hard to Count.” That means immigrants, lower income families and children.
That means large swaths of Orange County.
A Census Bureau review found 1 in every 10 county residents — 10.8% of the population — wasn’t counted in 2010, one of the highest rates in the nation. That translated into about 124,000 people and $1.8 billion in lost revenue.
That money could have gone toward child welfare, education, business grants, infrastructure, housing, foster care, public safety and scores of other programs.
Four other Florida counties were among the top 20 nationwide in omissions. That meant the state lost almost $20 billion in federal funds the past decade.
The Census malaise isn’t limited to the Legislature. Businesses, media and the general public have a hard time focusing on something that comes around every 10 years then disappears from the radar.
“We get those blank stares,” said Susan Racher, vice president of the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation. It’s one of seven organizations that have partnered to form Florida Counts.
The group is trying to raise a modest $2 million from businesses and philanthrophic organizations. The money will be distributed to nonprofits and faith-based organizations that are plugged into what the Census Bureau terms “Hard To Count” communities.
The effort is laudable, but it’s triage at best. If Florida Counts reaches its fundraising goal, it would still be $32 million short of what the Census Bureau estimates is needed to adequately fund outreach programs in Florida.
Most states have tried to address the problem through Complete Count Committees. Such community organizations raise Census awareness and cajole people to register. California is spending $187 million on its program.
Orlando and Orange County have individually formed CCCs, but big money from the state never came. A bill to fund a CCC died in this year’s legislative session, ensuring Florida would be one of only five states without one.
Gov. Ron DeSantis says the federal government is better suited to handle CCC duties. There’s a whiff of politics in that stance.
The most under-counted groups tend to vote Democratic. Omitting them would advantage Republicans in the next redistricting for the U.S. House of Representatives and in the state Legislature.
Four of the five holdout states have Republican governors. Of 11 states spending at least $1 per resident on outreach, 10 have Democratic governors.
The Trump Administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the Census form complicated matters. The Supreme Court blocked the move in July, but the chilling effect on immigrant households lingers.
Paper registration forms will still be available, but Census 2020 will be the first primarily conducted online. That’ll be another challenge for Hard To Count segments like the elderly and poor.
Florida had a CCC under then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010. That is actually a warning sign for 2020. Even with the extra outreach, about 7.5% of Florida’s population wasn’t counted 10 years ago.
The fact is CCCs aren’t cure-alls, but every bit of help matters. And under-counting is a mistake states have to live with for a full decade.
Florida received fewer grants per capita than any other state in 2015, according to Florida TaxWatch. That should have been a red flag to lawmakers to gear up early for 2020.
Instead, the damage may have already been done. The Census Bureau begins canvassing remote areas of the U.S. in a month. Letters with instructions go out to the general public in March.
Even if it wanted to, the Legislature couldn’t fund a CCC in time to affect next year’s Census.
It will be up to local organizations and groups like Florida Counts to beat the drum. Hopefully, they’ll have an impact.
We can also hope when Census 2030 rolls around, Florida will have learned from its 2020 and 2010 Census mistakes.
It could be a very expensive lesson.
Editorials are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board and are written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Shannon Green, Jay Reddick, David Whitley and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.