Louisiana lags behind in Census response

An undercount will mean less money for Louisiana

Photo by Getty Images

Only about 57 percent of Louisiana residents have responded to the 2020 Census, which means the state has one of the lowest response rates in the country. As of Wednesday, Louisiana ranked 45th in the nation for the Census Bureau’s self-response ratings. 

The census, which occurs every 10 years, was written into the U.S. Constitution by the nation’s founders. The first count was taken in 1790 and has been conducted every decade thereafter. The country counts its population and uses the results to adjust or redraw congressional districts, and that determines the number of electoral seats each state has during a presidential election. 

The population numbers also affect the amount of federal money that gets allocated to a particular district, parish, town or community. Places with higher recorded populations typically receive higher amounts of federal funding to pay for things such as roads, schools, hospitals and welfare services. Census figures can impact countless other things from the number of jobs in a town to the number of fire hydrants in a certain neighborhood. 

Residents who do not respond to a census may contribute to their own communities losing money. Such undercounts have historically occurred in historically marginalized and low-income communities. A current Louisiana example is Tensas Parish, which is last in the state with a response rate of only 29 percent. Nestled along the Mississippi River in Northeast Louisiana, the majority Black parish has a median income that is half that of the rest of Louisiana, and nearly a third of its approximately 4,300 people lives in poverty.

“I’ve heard every excuse, but it’s just poverty,” Tensas Parish President Rod Webb said when asked why his parish has had such a low response to the 2020 Census. “We’ve been trying our best, but it’s been hard, man. It’s been really hard.”

Webb said that some residents may not understand how important the census is. Others, he said, fear that the government might use the information to go after them for things like outstanding warrants or overdue child support.

By law, an individual’s census information remains sealed for 72 years, and no other agency — not even a law enforcement agency — can access it. In 1980, FBI agents tried to use search warrants to seize documents from a Census office in Colorado but were forced to leave with nothing.

Another obstacle for Tensas Parish is the lack of internet access. People in some areas of the parish can’t access the internet at all because no internet companies provide service in those areas, Webb said.

Tensas sits in Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, which, as a whole, has a 51 percent response, last in the state. No one from the office of Rep. Ralph Abraham, who represents that District, responded to several requests for comment.

However, some of Louisiana’s other political leaders voiced concerns over the state’s lackluster response to the census.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves of the 6th District said it is “critically important” for every person to respond because the population figures affect so many things.

“Everything from healthcare, education, employment, firefighters, law enforcement, transportation, it just goes A to Z in terms of the impact this could have on Louisiana and our communities,” Graves said.

Louisiana has twice lost electoral seats because of census counts. The state lost its 8th District after the 1990 Census and the 7th District after the 2010 Census. 

“We’re down to six right now,” Graves said, referring to Louisiana’s electoral seats. “So unless you want California and New York telling us what to do, we need to step it up.”

Graves said his office has begun including census reminders in its letters to constituents. 

U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins issued the following response via email on Wednesday:

“We’re focused on navigating current challenges and achieving an accurate count. The same methods that worked a decade ago, may not be as effective in 2020. We’ve seen a cultural shift regarding the willing dissemination of personal data since 2010. We must account for eroding trust, changes in technology, the prevalence of scams, etc. That was before COVID-19, which has further complicated the collection of Census data. My office has encouraged online Census responses through our media channels, and we’ll continue to do so.”

To respond to the 2020 Census, visit my2020Census.gov or call (844) 330-2020.

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Wesley Muller
Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.