Technology Limitations Pose Challenge for W.Va.’s Census Count

With much at stake in the 2020 count, local and regional leaders are calling on stakeholders to rally communities and volunteers. The upcoming Census will rely heavily on the Internet, which could prove problematic in underserved parts of the state.

by Jessica Farrish, The Register-Herald / April 3, 2019
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(TNS) — The 23rd U.S. Census in 2020 will be the first in history to rely heavily on technology, but a multi-step online application process and fear of the federal government is making it more difficult to find local workers and to get residents motivated to be counted, a Census Bureau regional director said Tuesday.

"We are fully on board with being able for the first time to do a Census that is heavily dependent and heavily assisted by technology," said Fernando Armstrong, regional director for the Census Bureau office in Philadelphia, which oversees nine states, including West Virginia. "That also brings some challenges.

"I am encouraged by the way technology is working and the fact that, with some of these things, we have evidence that it can work," he said. "I am concerned with the public reaction and the public's willingness to be on the Census."

Armstrong made his comments Tuesday morning from the U.S. Census Bureau 2020 West Virginia headquarters on North Kanawha Street in Beckley, where Mayor Rob Rappold hosted a Census 2020 Kick-Off. The office is the state headquarters, the clearinghouse for Census operations around the state.

Armstrong acknowledged that federal officials had considered when establishing the office in Beckley that Internet connectivity could prove a challenge.

"We wanted to test here... How will this work?" he reported. "If it works here then, maybe, it will work in Tennessee and Kentucky and the west side of the country, where connectivity may not be as [developed] as it should be."

"So we took a big risk in opening the office here," he added. "I need to report to you that the results of the test we did out of Beckley [and in Rhode Island and Washington] are very, very promising, very encouraging."

West Virginia's technology infrastructure, including broadband, is underdeveloped. Many residents of more rural areas do not have Internet service in their homes.

New River Gorge Regional Development Authority Executive Director Joe Brouse explained in March that the state's population is a contributing factor to its underdeveloped broadband and the resulting lack of Internet connectivity for its residents.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that West Virginia was one of only eight states to lose population in 2016, with 9,951 residents leaving the state between July 2015 and July 2016. The state also suffered a natural population loss of 2,680, meaning that the number of West Virginians being born was not replacing the number dying. During the time period referenced, the state saw 19,799 births and 22,479 deaths.

Brouse said private companies will not invest in markets where the customer base is not large enough to offer a return on investment, so West Virginians are waiting on the federal government to provide broadband expansion for adequate education and medical services delivery. They also need technology to entice investors to the Mountain State.

Rappold and Armstrong reached out to local leaders in the faith, government, business and media sectors to encourage their fellow West Virginians to be counted in the Census and to apply for Census jobs.

"You need to help us get the word out," Rappold told the gathering, which included Chase Bank President Nancy Kissenger, Chick-fil-A operator Richard Jarrell, Raleigh County Community Action Association Executive Director Ron Cantley, Beckley Sanitary Board Manager Jeremiah Johnson, City Zoning Officer Bob Cannon and Beckley Common Council members Ann Worley (Ward II), Sherrie Hunter (at-large) and Kevin Price (Ward IV).

"It is a civic duty to be part of the Census," Rappold said, pointing out that Beckley and the state will receive federal dollars based largely on the results of the Census.

Armstrong added, "We need the people to use the technology, and we need the people to feel comfortable doing the Census. For those two things, we need a lot of help."

The U.S. Constitution calls for a Census to be taken once every 10 years, and a population count is a vital step for any state or municipality to claim disbursements of nearly $400 billion in federal funds.

Census data also determines how many delegates West Virginia will be given in Congress.

The goal is "to count everyone once, only once and in the right place," according to the website.

In West Virginia, the Census is facing challenges finding workers and a mistrust of the population count, Armstrong said.

"There's a lot of fear," he said. "There's some mistrust of government. There is fear about the information and who will have access.

"We need to work to make sure that we can put at rest that kind of fear."

The West Virginia Census headquarters is finding that the online-only application process may be slowing the hiring process in the southern coalfields.

"We used to bring people to a church or a library and they would complete their (application) forms," Armstrong said. "Now, people have to apply online.

"That is the only way of doing it. Together, we need to find ways in which we can assist people to apply online."

Armstrong and a representative of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin's office reported Tuesday that Manchin has hosted two job fairs, offering a centralized location for workers to apply for the Census jobs online, and that he is planning a few more.

Armstrong said that the online application process, however, involves multiple steps, requiring applicants to stay in an interactive relationship with the Census Bureau online. Many applicants are giving up and not completing the process.

On March 11, Connie Mills of the Census Bureau appeared at a Beckley Common Council meeting to ask for help in finding workers to fill temporary jobs that pay $12 to $15 an hour and range from 25 to 40 hours per week.

Rappold on Tuesday encouraged local workers to apply for the Census jobs.

"Go to the library to access a computer, if you don't have one at home," he said.

He urged West Virginians not to be afraid to ask for guidance to complete the electronic application process.

"It's today's world, it's the most effective way to accomplish what we're trying to do," he said.

Applicants may start the process by visiting 2020census.gov/en/jobs.

©2019 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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