Thursday, April 1, 2010

It's Census Day: What does that mean for rural America?

Well, the New York Times features two stories that help to answer that question. One by Monica Davey features the dateline, Wolford, North Dakota (population 50), and the other, by Shaila Dewan, features the dateline Mayersville, Mississippi (population 795). Davey's story is headlined, "Few to Count, but All Eager to Get it Done," and she quotes the mayor of tiny Wolford as saying that the town's population has surely dropped in the past decade into the 40s. Davey apparently chose to feature Wolford in particular because it is one of a few towns in the U.S.--all of them in the midwest and all tiny--where every household has already returned its Census form. In spite of the material consequences of the Census count (the distribution of billions of dollars of federal funding is at stake), Davey suggests small town North Dakotans like those in Wolford are motivated by more than self interest:

Still, in this state of about 650,000 people (and no dream of somehow getting a second United States representative) and in towns like this one of just 50 (probably just 40-something by now, the mayor says), the extreme participation in the census may have less to do with a wishing for more federal money than with a certain sensibility.

“Why wouldn’t you send it right back?” asked Jim Wolf, who has been mayor here so long that he cannot recall what year he took office. “It’s a rural community,” said Mr. Wolf, who is also the volunteer fire squad chief, “and I guess we go by the rules.”

The story features several photos and characterizations that highlight aspects of small-town life, including lack of anonymity (everyone in town already knows who the oldest resident is, and who the youngest is). Some features of rural life relate to the high response rate to the Census. For example, Census officials have observed that residential stability is a good indicator of who will return their Census form. Most residents of Wolford grew up there. A University of North Dakota rural sociologist is quoted as noting the "high degree of trust in our elected officials."

Along with North Dakota, other states with high rates of return are South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Dewan's story about rural Mississippi provides a nice contrast with Davey's tale from North Dakota. Indeed, it illustrates well the old adage, "If you've seen one rural place, you've seen one rural place." As in the rest of the Delta, poverty and illiteracy plague Issaquena County, population 2,274. So, apparently, does distrust of the government. Dewan writes:

People mistrust census takers for a variety of reasons, including a belief that the government is trying to catch them doing something illegal like misrepresenting the number of people in their household, which could affect benefits like food stamps, said Calvin Stewart, a Rolling Fork alderman, teacher, high school sports referee and spokesman for the town’s new antilitter campaign.

* * *

Issaquena County "contained some of the most challenging and undercounted census tracts in the state" in the 2000 Census, and as of today, the "target date to return census forms ... Issaquena was still lagging — only 21 percent of households had returned their forms, compared with 52 percent nationally, according to the running tally on the census Web site, although in many cases the forms have been hand-delivered to people’s homes by census workers.
The planned solution: a continuing public education effort to let residents know what is at stake ($400 billion, give or take a few), and a lot of door-to-door coverage by Census workers.

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