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Experts concerned about possibly undercounting Arkansas population in 2020 Census

Population in Arkansas is already dwindling, but undercounting the people who are still here could have a big impact on federal funding to the state. (Photo: KATV)

That simple survey we receive in the mail every ten years does a lot more than just count us; that count better known as the Census is used to help distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal assistance, and Arkansas has missed out in the past due to undercounting the population.

Population in Arkansas is already dwindling due to natural causes like birth rate, death rate and fewer people moving to the Natural State.

"Fewer births, more deaths, less migration means less population overall," said Pam Willrodt, Arkansas Economic Development Institute demographer. "So if we have population that's breathing right now, we need to count them."

But according to statistics from Price Waterhouse Cooper, in the 2000 Census, Arkansas managed to undercount its population by more than 34,000 people. Putting that into perspective, that's like forgetting to count the whole city of Bryant - twice.

If the state managed to undercount its population again in 2020 by just one-percent, it could result in up to $7.5 million lost annually in federal funding - roughly $2,542 for every uncounted Arkansan. That's according to The George Washington University's study titled Counting for Dollars 2020, based on Fiscal Year 2015 numbers. The study only takes into account the top 16 largest federal assistance programs that distribute funds based on Census data - with nearly 300 federal assistance programs actually using Census data to distribute federal dollars.

What makes Arkansas so vulnerable to a Census undercount is largely attributed to its unique demographic characteristics which include vast rural areas, high poverty rates and large minority populations. It makes many Arkansans difficult to get in touch with, as well many Arkansans in those populations are reluctant to provide the government with their personal information because they're afraid of what they plan to do with the data.

One major challenge for the Census is monitoring new construction. If the Census's master address list doesn't account for a new home or apartment complex, whoever lives there likely won't be counted.

"If the address isn't on the master list, they're not going to get the card saying give us your Census data, tell us who you are," said Willrodt.

But local government entities have the opportunity to check the Census's master address list through a program called LUCA, the Local Update of Census Addresses.

"When you work with the Census, they give you the list, you can look at the list and say - yes, no, maybe - and have a voice in making sure that your local area is counted appropriately," said Willrodt.

LUCA was able to help Arkansas locate 1,500 new households by allowing local leaders to examine the Census master address list before forms were sent out in 2010. Despite that, Willrodt said this time only two of the state's fastest growing counties have signed up to check that master address list. According to Willrodt, neither Pulaski County nor the city of Little Rock have signed up to participate in LUCA.

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