Census Bureau seeks to extend timeline after COVID-19 interrupts operation

Updated: Apr. 14, 2020 at 7:17 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - South Carolina has some of the lowest participation rates for the 2020 Census but the state may have more time to count residents if federal lawmakers approve an extension.

On Monday, the Census Bureau announced it was seeking a 120-day extension from Congress to deliver data to the president. It also announced residents would have until October 31 to submit their response. The extension for the state’s response would mean the president would get the data in April 2021 rather than December 2020.

“That’s a big deal because the Census is a constitutionally mandated activity and all of those dates are set so it requires legislative approval to make a change like that,” said Mary Dell Hayes, a project manager at S.C. Counts with the United Way Association.

The Census Bureau stopped collecting field data in March over COVID-19 concerns.

“Communities were planning huge responses to get people to turn out for the count and that included community festivals, having booths at libraries, all kinds of community-based events and obviously with the virus we’ve all gone virtual,” Dell Hayes explained.

The bureau announced it is hoping to reopen its field offices in early June.

So far, 48% of Americans have responded across the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Assistant Regional Census Manager Marilyn Stephens said despite COVID-19, response rates aren’t that bad.

“What I really love is we are getting more creative. Everyone is getting creative. Some of our partners have done things on Instagram, Facebook Live, Zoom. They’re getting more messages out,” Stephens said.

She said each census brings its own challenges and charm.

“We’re adapting to what’s necessary in order to have the best count ever,” Stephens said.

The state’s population determines how much federal money they get for the next 10 years.

The around $675 billion from the federal government are used on everything from schools to disaster relief to health care to infrastructure.

“It’s also used in a pandemic to determine what relief the state gets, what portion of the resources we get and so it’s probably never been more crucial for us to have a complete count,” Dell Hayes said.

Currently, the federal government is taking into account the state’s census numbers as it allocates how much medical supplies states get from the Strategic National Stockpile to help battle COVID-19.

Close to $13 million is on the line in South Carolina.

The state currently has some of the lowest participation rates and ranks 41st in the country with only 43.5 percent of its residents responding to the 2020 Census.

In Horry County, the response is even lower with only 35.8% of residents responding.

“It is definitely concerning to see Horry and Georgetown as having such a low response rate right now. We know there’s been tremendous growth in those counties over the past 10 years and we really want to get everyone counted,” Dell Hayes said.

Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce president Karen Riordan said she’s not surprised by the low response rates in Horry County.

“I think there is just a high level of distraction right now among our population because of the high rate of unemployment as well so I think that has definitely been a factor as to why people haven’t had five minutes to take the census,” Riordan said.

She said the extension will give the area an opportunity to increase participation.

The chamber frequently looks at demographic data and uses it in promoting the area to tourists and businesses.

“We knew we were growing quickly but that means our demographics are changing as people from Ohio or New Jersey or New England or Virginia are moving here and it does have serious positive implications for Horry County and for the state of South Carolina if that census can be completed and we can get high participation rates,” Riordan said.

Lancaster and York counties are leading the state in responses. In contrast, Hampton and Allendale County have the least response.

“It may seem boring and dumb or the least important thing in the world right now but if we don’t get people counted we are going to have huge problems for the next ten years,” Dell Hayes said.

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