MISSOULA — Montana currently holds the greatest decrease in the percentage of self-response rates in the latest Census, which could cost the state federal funding and a potential second seat in Congress.
According to data compiled by U.S. Census Bureau as of Oct. 27 – the last date recorded – Montana saw a 4.2% decline in its self-response rates this year, down from 64.6% in 2010.
In comparison, the national self-response rate increased from 66.5% in 2010 to 67.0% in 2020, with online and phone response options made available for the first time.
The Census Bureau is currently reporting 99.9% final response rates in Montana, alongside nearly all other states. Self-response rates tend to be more accurate in demographics and residency status, since enumerators don’t have to reach out to the person to account for them.
Lack of accuracy could affect certain funding for Montana, as well as counties.
Emilie Ritter Saunders, Montana Department of Commerce communications director, attributed the lower self-response rate to struggles with making people aware of the Census.
COVID-19 limited events often used to raise awareness of the Census, she said, and roughly a quarter of homes don’t receive mail at a traditional household address.
“In some Montana counties and reservation areas, almost all households do not have city-style addresses,” Saunders told the Current. “That means many Montanans did not get an invitation to respond to the 2020 Census earlier this year because the U.S. Census Bureau does not mail to P.O. boxes or Rural Route addresses. Many Montanans did not get invited to respond to the Census until July or even August.”
The difficulty of reaching out to rural areas was compounded with less Census workers overall for 2020 to assist in self-reporting. This was due to the addition of phone and online options, Saunders said.
“This hurt rural and tribal areas because unlike 2010, the Census staff were not able to provide generic paper forms to these areas since they had to have a preassigned geocode,” Saunders stated.
“These codes could not be provided to the household over the phone – you had to get them from a Bureau packet left at doorsteps or mailed to traditional addresses. The Bureau discouraged going online or calling without the code. So all the households without a packet did not have the required code so that they could self-respond.”
Saunders also attributed the Census self-response rate being lower to poor internet connection throughout Montana, which she said limited the ability of people to self-respond.
Several more rural and less densely-populated counties across the state saw decreases greater than 10%.
The self-response rate in Wheatland County decreased from 59.3% in 2010 to 30.4% currently in 2020. The rate in Prairie County decreased from 65.2% to 35.8% currently. Sanders County self-response rate decreased from 57.3% to 44.2%.
While tribal reservations aren’t counted in a state’s percentage, some Montana tribal reservations that reported in the 2010 Census saw self-reporting rates decline by half of what was reported in 2020.
Crow Tribal Reservation’s self-response rate decreased from 80.0% in 2010 to 20.5% in 2020. Blackfeet Tribal Reservation’s self-response rate decreased from 71.4% in 2010 to 29.4% in 2020.
However, Flathead Tribal Reservation’s self-response rate increased from 30.3% in 2010 to 47.4% in 2020.
More populous counties like Gallatin, Missoula Yellowstone counties saw an increase in self-report rates in the single digits.
Missoula County’s self-response rate increased from 70.4% in 2010 to 71.6%. It’s the second-highest county self-response rate next to Yellowstone County’s at 74.2%.
Allison Franz, Missoula County’s communication director, helped advocate for filling out the Census.
Franz also noted the difficulties with getting out messaging related to the Census during the pandemic, but attributed the increase compared to other counties as residents having better access to the internet.
Missoula saw 60.8% report their Census using the internet.
In areas with a lower response rate, the county sent out notifications to people about the Census.
“We just sent out the postcards in the Potomac area because that had a lower self-response rate,” Franz said. “We were able to use CARES Act funding to just send out postcards to that area, by the people. I don’t know if that helped significantly at all, but we did do some additional outreach to get everyone to self-respond.”
Depending on the statewide results, the 2020 Census could potentially earn Montana a second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
According to the Census Bureau, the final results and data collected by the 2020 Census will come out at the earliest on Dec. 31, 2020, although the bureau has said it’s likely to be delayed as they work out processing anomalies.