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Fearing A Census Undercount, Rural Montanans Count Themselves

Attendees of a census outreach event sit outside 2 Basset Brewery in White Sulphur Springs. In front of them, a blue 2020 Census banner reads "Shape your future. Start here."
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Attendees of a census outreach event sit outside 2 Basset Brewery in White Sulphur Springs on Sept. 9, 2020.

As Montana continues to lag behind the national census response rate, members of hard to reach rural communities are counting themselves in grocery stores, libraries and bars. The once-a-decade count decides millions of dollars in federal funding and could boost Montana’s representation in Congress.

Thirsty customers start meandering into 2 Bassett Brewing in White Sulphur Springs on a recent weekday evening.

But not everyone has a pint on their table. One woman near the bar instead has a tablet bearing the 2020 Census logo. Dangling free beer tokens, she’s trying to sign up people who haven’t yet participated in this decade’s tally.

With a Sept. 30 deadline looming, 13 percent of Montana households haven’t been counted, tied for the second most among all states. That number is much higher in central Montana’s remote Meagher County, where White Sulphur Springs is located.

Rural areas face unique challenges being counted due to the U.S. Census Bureau’s outreach methods and the novel coronavirus pandemic’s impact on face to face contact.

That’s why community leaders like Sarah Calhoun, director of the Red Ants Pants Foundation, are at 2 Bassett Brewing urging their neighbors to respond to the census.

“We exist and we’re important out here in rural Montana,” Calhoun said.

For each Montanan who fills out the census, the state receives about $20,000 in federal funding over a 10 year span for health care, education, infrastructure and more.

The census also has political implications.

An undercount could cost Montana a second seat in Congress, according to a recent American Statistical Association report. A low tally could also affect the drawing of state legislative districts, which determine the balance of rural and urban power in Montana.

Zach Brown with the Montana Nonprofit Association says the Census bureau was understaffed even before the coronavirus forced a pause on door to door counting from March to early May.

The state hired the association to conduct census outreach in places like Meagher County, where Brown says residents may have received one or no census notifications, compared to six or more in cities.

“We have to be creative and help find those people who aren’t found by the census. But it is a challenge; I’m not going to lie. Montana’s in a really tough spot,” Brown said.

Flyers advertising 2020 Census taker positions are pinned to a bulletin board in a White Sulphur Springs laundromat. Other advertisements surround the flyers.
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Flyers advertising 2020 Census taker positions are pinned to a bulletin board in a White Sulphur Springs laundromat on Sept. 9, 2020. The Census Bureau has been having trouble hiring a sufficient amount of temporary workers in rural Montana.

Brown and his partners have been holding events at popular gathering points like 2 Bassett Brewing to hawk free gas fill ups and grocery store gift cards in exchange for a census response. The former state legislator has also been looking for trusted local voices who can reach out to their community with more credibility than a government employee.

One such person is Beth Hunt, who’s run the Meagher County Senior Center for 20 years.

Hunt is well known in the community, she waved to multiple passing cars during a short outdoor interview.

After realizing Meagher County potentially faced an undercount, Hunt started dropping off census fliers at businesses up and down Main Street.

She says she never received any census mailers because she has a P.O. box address, like every resident of White Sulphur Springs. The Census Bureau doesn’t mail invitations to P.O. boxes and many rural route addresses, so one in five Montana households didn’t initially receive paperwork.

Hunt pesters anyone who will listen about the census, in part because the nonprofit senior center uses federal funds to subsidize free and reduced price meals for community members.

“I know I ran into my sister-in-law in the bank and was talking census and she said she hadn’t done it, and so I got after her at the bank. I do kind of bug people about it a bit because I think it’s important. That’s part of being neighborly,” Hunt said.

At the senior center, Hunt has walked a few dozen people through the census process, the first one to be conducted online, in addition to by phone and mail.

Hunt realized shortly after clicking through the web page that many elderly people would have trouble with it, if they have internet access at all. Hunt says completing the census via phone can also present challenges.

“I had several people come in and said they tried to do it via the phone, but couldn’t figure it out and gave up. It can be intimidating to try to do on your own,” Hunt said.

Hunt compared her efforts to raising money for a community project. She says it’s important for a rural county like Meagher to access all the federal resources it can.

“People struggle to pay rent and to pay utilities, so we want to make sure we have a community that can provide for those that can’t. We want to see our hospital thrive, and our school thrive. And to just see our people thrive,” Hunt said.

The school Hunt mentioned is about three blocks from the senior center.

Superintendent Larry Markuson is concerned about the potential for an inaccurate count to impact funding for the White Sulphur Springs School District, which serves about 200 students.

Markuson says federal funds make up seven to 10 percent of the district's budget and pay for everything from lunches to classroom smart boards to one on one help for struggling students.

“When you think of it in terms of the cost of a teacher, or the cost of an aide, or what it costs to buy a set of books for a certain class, it is significant and it has a huge impact on what we can offer the kids in our community,” Markuson said.

That’s why Markuson did his part to support census outreach by grabbing a beer at 2 Bassett Brewing after the school day wrapped up.