Photo by Enayet Raheem on Unsplash

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One of the most consequential things South Carolina residents will do in 2020 will be respond to the census. It’s far from the first thing on any of our minds today, of course, but the census has far-reaching impacts on aspects of our daily lives. Who represents you in government, new roads and schools, and, yes, disaster preparedness are all determined by the official population count.

Right now, less than half of South Carolinians have responded. That’s a shame.

Every 10 years, the federal government counts everyone who lives in the United States. This year, Americans can respond via mail and, for the first time, online. The agency gives annual estimates for years between censuses, but for the 10-year count, there’s no fudging the numbers. You are counted or not, and that translates into millions of dollars that flow to state and local governments.

In 2016, census-based population estimates served as the basis for more than $13 billion in federal funding for South Carolina, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures report.

Here in Charleston, we’ve obviously seen tremendous change since the last census was taken in 2010. The city has leveraged its reputation as a tourism destination to draw thousands of new residents, which means more dollars for local programs. But not all areas have been fortunate to see the same amount of growth.

Some South Carolina counties where populations have dropped over the last decade face significant cutbacks. Estimates from the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office last year showed Sumter, Florence, and Orangeburg counties taking the biggest hits. One Florence County leader said the estimated $300,000 that the county is expected to lose could be the difference as to whether employees get cost-of-living pay increases. Closer to home, fast-growing areas like inland Charleston County, along with Berkeley and Dorchester counties, stand to get more resources to meet demand in the swelling suburbs.

For South Carolina, programs with funding based on the census include Medicaid, the state children’s health insurance program, and WIC. Essential safety net programs like these are even more important to residents of our state who are forced to make ends meet with low wages and little additional help from state programs.

The census also quite literally has a significant impact on democracy in South Carolina, as districts are redrawn every 10 years based on the new census population.

Unfortunately, our Republican-controlled state government has not shown a commitment to getting an accurate count in 2020. As other states spend millions of dollars on outreach to boost response rates, South Carolina has budgeted nothing. In our state’s rural, minority, and immigrant communities, populations that already go undercounted, people who need the money most will go without. And the political status quo will continue.

You’ve got a little more time to complete the census this year due to COVID-19; but in the light of the importance of coordinated federal programs we’ve seen in recent weeks, an accurate census count may be even more important than we realized. Respond today at 2020census.gov.