When officials in Chester, Georgia learned that the 2020 census pegged their small town at 525, their jaws dropped. They thought the city was almost triple that size and worried that an inaccurate number would force them to make budget cuts.
“I said, ‘Whoa, that’s not true,'” City Clerk Melanie McCook said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘This is going to greatly affect our income.'”
Chester and two other small rural municipalities in Georgia are the first communities in the United States to challenge the accuracy of their counts from the once-a-decade count. Successful challenges are rare, but the outcome could determine whether Chester, the city of Glennville and White County get a bigger cut when it comes to distributing $1.5 trillion in annual federal funding.
In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, White County officials were stunned when the 2020 census reported the county had a population of 28,003. A 2019 Census Bureau estimate had put the county’s population at 30,798. The county is home to the town of Helen, a tourist attraction modeled after a Bavarian Alpine village.
An analysis by the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, a nonprofit agency that provides planning assistance to area communities, said half of the county’s census blocks had incorrect housing counts. Although the 2020 census put the number of dwellings at 13,535, it should have been 15,286, according to the analysis.
“We are concerned about the long-term impacts, not being eligible for grants, not getting as many dollars as needed for our schools, those kinds of opportunities that arise when the census count is used” said White County Community Manager John Sell. and economic development.
Glennville and Chester are home to state prisons, which have become one of the hardest places to count — along with college dorms, nursing homes and military barracks — as the coronavirus spread across the United States during crucial weeks for the census in the spring of 2020. Students were sent home from campuses, and prisons and nursing homes were closed when these residents were supposed to be counted.
In Georgia, inmates are supposed to be counted where they are imprisoned. A dozen other states plan to count prisoners at home when drawing political districts.
Because of the challenges posed by pandemic closures to these “group neighborhood” counts, the Census Bureau proposed creating a separate program to accept challenges from dormitories, military barracks, nursing homes, and prisons. Local authorities in Georgia are not waiting.
In Glennville, where more than a third of the population is black, the 2020 census counted 3,834 people. Estimates for 2019 indicated there were 5,066 people, and Glennville officials say the 2020 number should be higher than 5,300 because they believe the approximately 1,500 inmates at Smith State Prison n were not counted.
“It’s not that they did anything wrong. It was just an oversight. You had to take into account that we had covid and people weren’t allowed in or out,” he said. Glennville City Manager Stan Dansby said of the jail.
A combination of the pandemic and a lack of reliable broadband to complete the census questionnaire online may have led to discrepancies in counts in rural Georgia, said Heather Feldman, executive director of the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.
“Unlike many parts of the country, Georgia was experiencing extremely high cases of COVID-19,” Feldman said in an email. “Unlike densely populated metropolitan areas, door-to-door census counters may not have gone to harder-to-reach areas of rural counties.”
The scope of appeals allowed by the Census Bureau is narrow – errors in boundary or housing registration ignored when processing data. Revisions to population and housing totals were made to about 1% of the nation’s 39,000 governments after the 2010 census. The census challenges will not change the number of congressional seats each state gets or the numbers used. to redraw political constituencies.
Other communities have signaled they plan to challenge their census figures, including several college towns and the cities of Boston and Detroit.