(TNS) — Despite efforts by Walton County, Fla., officials to boost response rates to the 2020 census, only 33.9 percent of county households responded on their own to the decennial count of the U.S. population.
"Walton County did not have a great response to the census," admitted Dede Hinote, one of the county's two deputy administrators. Hinote said she and other county officials "really do not know why" the self-response rate was so low.
That self-response rate put Walton County 63rd among Florida's 67 counties in terms of the numbers of households that filled out and mailed in a census form, or completed the form online.
Nationwide counting of the population is integral to the redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts, whose lines are drawn in order to capture specific numbers of people within a given area to ensure equal representation in the halls of government. And as Hinote noted in a recent email response to Daily News questions on the low response rate in Walton County, the population count also is used to determine allocation of federal funding for an array of programs, from health care to infrastructure improvement to nutrition assistance to environmental and public safety programs.
An artificially low population count can mean fewer federal dollars coming into a given community than the community might be entitled to receive. It also can mean fewer representatives in government than might be required for a given area.
This year's census count ended Oct. 15. But Walton County's low response rate doesn't necessarily mean that the responding households were the only ones counted.
Between July 16 and Oct. 15, census workers interviewed residents of homes in Walton County and elsewhere in the country who hadn't responded to the census by mail or online. Also, from Sept. 23-24, census workers endeavored to count the homeless population in Walton County and the rest of the country, going to shelters, soup kitchens and mobile food vans and at non-shelter locales such as tent encampments.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 25.4 percent of the 33.9 percent of Walton County households that did respond to the census did so via the Internet. That might be reflective of a lack of robust local broadband service, particularly in the northern end of the county. In an effort to address that issue, Walton County commissioners in April approved a $3.5 million contract with a Nevada-based company, SOM1101, to install broadband service across the county, with completion scheduled for sometime next year.
Hinote went on to speculate that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which began making itself felt in Walton County early in the spring, might have had something to do with the low self-response rate.
But the fact that many of the county's residential structures are short-term vacation rental accommodations, and that the county has a large number of part-time residents, particularly along and near the beaches in the south end of the county, also might have played a role, Hinote said.
Other Northwest Florida counties had far higher self-response rates than Walton County. Santa Rosa County's self-response rate was the highest in the area, at 71.6 percent of households, with 60.6 percent of households responding via the Internet.
Elsewhere in the area, Escambia County's self-response rate was 64.6 percent (49.9 percent via the Internet); Okaloosa County's rate was 61.8 percent (52.5 percent Internet); Holmes County was 52.0 percent (19.1 percent Internet), Washington County was 55.6 percent (22.2 percent Internet); and Bay County was 47.2 percent (22.2 percent Internet).
Also notable in Walton County's self-response rate to the 2020 census is how far it dropped from the previous census. In 2010, Walton County notched a 57.5 percent self-response rate, making the 2020 self-response rate more than 23 percentage points lower than a decade ago.
In the other area counties noted above, 2010 self-response rates to the national census were within a few percentage points — some were higher, others were lower — of the 2020 census self-response rates. The lone exception was Bay County, where the 2020 census self-response rate of 47.2 percent was almost 16 percent lower than its 2010 self-response rate of 62.8 percent.
As early as this spring, Walton County officials began pushing the importance of filling out the census form. At a June meeting of the county commission, then-Chairman Bill Chapman all but begged residents to respond to the census, saying it had "major ramifications for the county as far as federal dollars coming back here."
"It won't take you five minutes to do it," Chapman said at the time. "We need those numbers, please."
"We promoted the census effort the best we could," Hinote wrote in an email responding to Daily News questions on the county's self-response rate.
Among the steps taken by the county beyond Chapman urging the public to respond to the national population count was the commission's appointment of a committee to boost the local self-response rate. That committee comprised representatives of each of the county's three municipalities — Freeport, DeFuniak Springs and Paxton — along with representatives of the Walton County School District, the Walton County Planning Department, religious organizations across the county, and county residents.
Additionally, according to Hinote, the county put up signs and did other advertising to urge the public to complete the census form, and made its computers available to the public for online census responses. The cities of Freeport and Paxton included reminders to respond to the census in their utility bills.
"Unfortunately, we just didn't get the response as expected," Hinote said.
In 2010, Walton County's population, as determined by the census, stood at 55,043. In the years between the decennial census, the Census Bureau issues periodic population estimates, and as of last July, the estimated population of Walton County was 74,071 people.
After each census, the Census Bureau conducts a "post-enumeration survey," in which it estimates whether the population was overcounted or undercounted. For example, after the 2010 census, the Census Bureau reported an estimated 10 million "omissions" in the census, which include people who were missed in the count and people who did not complete the entire census form.
More specifically, the survey of the 2010 census also indicated that the Black population was undercounted by 2.1 percent, while the Hispanic population was undercounted by 1.5 percent.
The U.S. Census Bureau currently is processing the data collected for the 2020 census. By the end of the year, or as close to Dec. 31 as possible — as required by law — the Census Bureau will deliver population counts used for congressional apportionment to the president.
By a second deadline, as close to April 1, 2021, as possible, the Census Bureau will send population counts to the states for use in redrawing state legislative districts.
(c)2020 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.