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Local Data Continues To Contradict Census Numbers

News Editor

Photo by Lydia Berglar – Simply observing residential construction in Dade County (such as these two homes being constructed in Trenton) indicates current growth, but county employees and officials also believe that previous growth was not accurately captured in the 2020 census.

When Phillip Hartline (District 2 commissioner) reports on electrical inspections at the Dade County Board of Commissioners meetings, he often notes that this local data doesn’t seem to correlate with the U.S. Census Bureau’s findings that Dade County’s population is shrinking.

For example, at this month’s meeting, Hartline reported that seven electrical inspections for new construction alone were completed in January, (plus eight temporary and three mobile home electrical inspections). Hartline said, “Every month, we’re still growing. That’s where I come up with that I still feel that the census is incorrect so we’re tracking this to try to help plead the case on the census side of things.”

According to census numbers, Dade County had 16,633 residents in April 2010 but only 16,251 in April 2020–a 382-person decrease.

However, government employees who deal with new E911 addresses, electrical inspections, septic system permits, property taxes, etc. have an inside look at apparent growth within the county. Certainly any resident who has been around the county for the last decade or more has noticed new construction and apparent growth.

One set of data that does not indicate growth is enrollment in Dade County Schools, but a number of factors could impact this, such as families choosing private schools or homeschool. Additionally, the median age rose from 39.0 in 2010 to 42.5 in 2020 (that is, if the census information is accurate) indicating an aging population.

Stacy Stephens (Dade County Maintenance Supervisor) reported that new construction and mobile home electrical inspections in 2019 (the year before the most recent census) totaled 69. Last year (2023), the county completed 120 electrical inspections for new construction (homes, duplexes, and tiny homes) and mobile homes. Stephens agrees that the census is significantly off.

In the decade leading up to the 2020 census (2010-2019), the Dade County Health Department permitted 445 septic systems. Thus far in the current decade (2020-2023), the department has already permitted 394 septic systems.

The most definitive set of data related to residential growth comes from the Dade County Tax Assessor’s Office. The office’s data shows that 520 homes were added to the county from 2010-2019, and 330 new homes have already been added from 2020-2023. If the rate of growth from these past four years continues, the county will have 825 new homes added between the 2020 and 2030 census. Whether or not the 2030 census will accurately capture that growth remains to be seen.

Throughout the 2020 census, the Sentinel covered efforts to collect accurate data. The July 29, 2020 issue reported on the Complete Count Committee’s visit to an event at Rising Fawn Church of God where only 15 out of about 300 people stopped to fill out the census. Quoted in that article, Carey Anderson (public information & relations officer for the county) noted that many people seemed unaware of the census.

The September 23, 2020 issue read, “Trenton Mayor Alex Case reported during the Sep. 17 Dade County weekly update that the county’s 2020 Census numbers are well below what was expected, which could lead to the county missing even more money than the $144 million lost after the 2010 Census.”

In an attempt to attain a proper count, census takers (hired in local communities) go door to door to residences that have not responded to the census. Case (who is not only concerned with census numbers as the mayor but also because of his work with E911 addresses and Dade County Emergency Management) reported that census workers did go door to door briefly to track down residents who had not responded, but these efforts ended when COVID-19 took over in early 2020. Case believes that just about every county was inaccurately counted.

Census numbers are of great importance when it comes to state and federal funding and much more. Don Townsend (county clerk/CFO) reported, “Increases/decreases to our official U.S. Census population cause variations in the County’s revenues and expenses. The data will impact the following:

  • local, state, and congressional representation
  • tier designation
  • grant eligibility such as for Community Development Block Grants
  • LOST (local option sales tax) negotiations
  • determine eligibility for over $600 billion in federal funding for numerous programs including Medicare, highway planning and construction, health center programs, SNAP, WIC, Section 8 housing, Head Start, etc.
  • determine eligibility for state programs and grants
  • comprehensive planning
  • service delivery
  • computing county official salaries
  • amount of revenue the county receives from the State Insurance Commissioner on Insurance Premium taxes.”

In part because census data influences federal and state funding, Dade County is not the only Georgia county to express concern about the apparently low numbers. In January 2022, Mike Schneider of the Associated Press wrote, “When officials in Chester, Georgia, heard that the 2020 census had pegged their small town at 525 people, their jaws dropped. They believed the town was almost triple that size and feared an inaccurate number could force them to make budget cuts.”

The article later explained that Chester’s official census count would mean the population had declined by 67 percent, a stark contrast to locals’ observations.

Schneider reported on White County, Ga. where “officials were stunned when the 2020 census said the county had 28,003 residents. A Census Bureau estimate from 2019 had put the county’s population at 30,798…An analysis by the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, a nonprofit agency that provides planning help to communities in the region, said half of the county’s census blocks had incorrect housing counts.”

Addressing difficulties in obtaining accurate counts, Schneider wrote, “Both Glennville and Chester are home to state prisons, which became among the most difficult places to count — along with college dorms, nursing homes and military barracks — as the coronavirus spread throughout the U.S. during crucial weeks for the census in the spring of 2020. Students were sent home from campuses, and prisons and nursing homes went into lockdowns when those residents were supposed to be counted.”

However, the Census Bureau reported that the national findings are not drastically off. The bureau explained that some populations were slightly undercounted, and others were slightly overcounted, but, “The PES [Post Enumeration Survey] found that the 2020 Census had neither an undercount nor an overcount for the nation. It estimated a net coverage error of -0.24 percent (or 782,000 people) with a standard error of 0.25 percent for the nation, which was not statistically different from zero. By comparison, in the 2010 Census, the PES did not estimate a statistically significant undercount or overcount.”

Case reported that the county appealed to the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission which receives appeals from counties and takes them to the national level. As of early February, Case had not heard further information about the status of the appeal.

The Census Bureau also allows areas to challenge the estimates that are released annually between census years. Called the Population Estimates Challenge Program, the Bureau’s website explains, “Under this program, a governmental unit may challenge their population estimate by submitting additional data to the Census Bureau for evaluation. A challenge may result in a revised estimate if either of the following errors are found: 1. Technical error in processing input data or producing the estimates, 2. Incorrect input data used in the process of generating the estimates.”

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