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story.lead_photo.caption Fort Smith Mayor George McGill delivers his State of the City address Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Saccente)

FORT SMITH -- The mayor of Fort Smith has been speaking about the importance of getting a complete and accurate count of Arkansas residents for the 2020 census, and how the covid-19 pandemic ties into that.

In an interview Wednesday, George McGill said the charge given by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to the Arkansas Complete Count Committee, of which McGill is the chairman, was to create "maximum awareness" of the importance of the 2020 census. That included talking about the significance of the federal funding that is driven by the census, which affects, among other things, funding for rural health clinics, highways, education, Medicaid and senior citizens.

McGill also said some of the covid-19 emergency funding that Arkansas will get from the federal government will be driven by the census data that is on file for the state.

"So what we want to do is make sure we complete the census this time around in 2020, and that would ensure ... that we will receive maximum funding in case we ever experience another pandemic, or some other major disaster," McGill said.

McGill said much of the federal funding that Arkansas received after the 2019 Arkansas River flood was determined by census data. According to him, everyone benefits from all residents responding to the census.

"I'm counting on each Arkansan to complete that census, and I'm asking them to do it for all of our essential workers that [are] putting their lives on the line every day to protect us from this virus," McGill said. "Complete that census for the doctor and the nurse. Complete that census for the policemen and firemen that go out every day to make sure our cities are safe, and that all of the essential services are still being delivered. Complete that census for our sanitation workers who go out every day to make sure all the refuse is picked up."

The Complete Count Committee was established by Hutchinson via Executive Order 19-12 on Aug. 28, according to a news release from Hutchinson's office the same day. In addition to other reasons why the census is important, the order states that an undercount of Arkansas residents could pose a significant loss in federal assistance to the state. Even an undercount of 1% would equate to an estimated loss of $990 million in federal assistance funding formula grant allocations for the next 10 years.

McGill also said that covid-19 has caused a shift in almost every schedule in the United States, including the census. Field operations on the part of the U.S. Census Bureau have been shut down because of the pandemic, with operations being scheduled for reactivation June 1.

"Everything's being pushed back, and so everything will probably not be complete until October," McGill said. "But that gives us more time to create more awareness of the importance of the census."

The U.S. Census 2020 website provides a list of operations that have had to be adjusted as a result of the pandemic. The census self-response phase, for instance, has been extended. It was originally scheduled to last from March 12 to July 31, but now residents can respond to the census all the way through Oct. 31.

The census, McGill estimated, takes 5-7 minutes on average to complete. This can be accomplished online, by mail or by telephone. The fundamental questions for respondents include their name, address and how many people live in their household.

"It's pretty basic," McGill said. "They don't ask any immigration questions, they don't ask any information about Social Security numbers or personal information. They're interested in the number of people living in Arkansas at the time of a census."

The census website states that participating in the census is required by law. If a person doesn't respond, the Census Bureau will follow up with that individual in person to collect his response.

The website also features a map showing self-response rates across the country. As of Thursday, the Arkansas self-response rate was 46.4% compared with the national rate of 49.8%. Within Arkansas, Sebastian County had a self-response rate of 50.5% while Fort Smith had 50%.

State Desk on 04/19/2020

Print Headline: Mayor talks up census response

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