Official U.S. Census data reports that Wrangell has lost a tenth of its population – 242 people – in the past decade.
Wrangell’s Director of Economic Development Carol Rushmore said she was shocked when the borough received the 2020 figures.
“It doesn’t make sense when you look at our housing situation and other factors within the city,” Rushmore says. “We just don’t think there has been such a drop.”
The Census Bureau’s 2019 population estimate for Wrangell showed an increase of about 10% in the number of people living in the borough. State Department of Labor population projections, released in April of last year, also show Wrangell’s population remains roughly the same as the community count in 2010.
Rushmore says she thinks the number could be artificially low for two main reasons. One is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has delayed the census and forced cuts in in-person investigative work. The other reason is the census reliance on its own online mapping of residences across the country.
“It all depends so much on their digital mapping these days through the census, with the addressing and location of housing,” says Rushmore. “Of course, our addressing in town is terrible. There are duplicate numbers, there are houses without addressing. There are people who sometimes use their own addresses.
But she also admits that part of the blame could be placed on Wrangell’s low spontaneous response rate, which was lower than other communities in Alaska, including Anchorage, Juneau, Ketchikan and Petersburg. Just under 42% of Wrangell residents responded by phone, mail or online to census questionnaires. Enumerators who tried to contact non-reactive people may not have been able to verify the number of people living in a household, she said.
Even so, a low number of censuses is of concern to the community, as state and federal funding opportunities often take population into account. As is redistribution, which helps to distribute the political weight of a community in state elections.
Rushmore says the Wrangell administration is still studying its options. The federal Census Bureau has a program called Count Question Resolution, where governments can appeal their census counts, but the data requirements are strict.
Rushmore says she doesn’t know if the Wrangells will have the correct numbers to call.
“What we’re going to look at to make sure we want to complete the tally [appeal] comes from PFD records, voter records, utility bills, how many homes we have, I mean any data we might have to make sure it shows there should be an increase , not a drop, or at least [stayed] flat, ”Rushmore says.
Rushmore also adds that she is in contact with the Haines Borough Government, which according to the census has lost more than 15% of its population in the past decade. Its response rate was around 34%, which is also well below the state average.