Penboscot Bay Press Compass Logo

Penobscot Bay Press
Community Information Services

News Feature

The Island & The Peninsula
Originally published in Castine Patriot, June 4, 2020 and Island Ad-Vantages, June 4, 2020 and The Weekly Packet, June 4, 2020
Time to fill out your census forms, Mainers!
Local response to census lags behind the nation

COVID-19 Local Updates Archive
Click here to see the full COVID-19 Local Updates Archive.

Census

Mainers rank 47th in their response to the U.S. Census, which may cost the state millions of dollars.

Photo by Leslie Landrigan Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Leslie Landrigan

Maine has one of the worst response rates in the United States to the 2020 U.S. Census. The state ranks 47th among all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As of May 31, 50.6 percent of Mainers responded to the census by phone, by email or online, according to the Census Bureau. That’s less than the national rate of 60.5 percent.

And Hancock County has the third worst response rate among Maine counties. With a 34.1 percent response rate, it’s behind only Piscataquis and Franklin.

One reason for the state’s poor showing is that the Census Bureau suspended field operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the bureau won’t mail census forms to post office boxes, rural states like Maine have had lower response rates. The Census Bureau announced in May that it has resumed fieldwork in Maine.

Local town officials say they’re concerned that if all their residents don’t respond to the census, they’ll receive fewer dollars from the federal government than they’re entitled to. Census numbers determine how much money a town will receive for schools, roads, health care, harbor dredging, seawalls, foster care and food assistance, to name a few.

In fact, a 2018 study by the George Washington Institute for Public Policy (GWIPP) concluded more than $800 billion in federal money depends on census figures.

Even exercise equipment

Shawna Ambrose is the town administrator in Blue Hill, where fewer than a third of its residents have responded to the census. Ambrose said in a phone interview the census determines funding for all kinds of projects. Healthy Peninsula, for example, is helping the town get a grant for exercise equipment in the park, but that will depend on what the townspeople tell the Census Bureau, she said.

“Sometimes it’s the little things that help,” Ambrose said. Funding levels determined by census numbers include harbor dredging, Community Development Block Grants and an engineer to plan for mitigating sea level rise, she said.

Castine Town Manager Shawn Blodgett said the census determines so many things he couldn’t single out a project for its importance.

“There’s so many things that depend on the census that it would be impossible to come up with a succinct answer,” said Blodgett in a phone interview.

He said he was aware Castine had a low response rate—only 12.2 percent. Part of that, he said, had to do with the pandemic’s impact on Maine Maritime Academy. “With the closure of Maine Maritime Academy to in-person classes, our numbers are going to take a hit,” Blodgett said.

Deer Isle Town Manager Jim Fisher said in an email that one of the town’s biggest concerns is the deterioration of the Deer Isle causeway on Route 15.

“We are working with Maine DOT and Maine Emergency Management Agency to identify funding to raise and reinforce this critical infrastructure,” Fisher wrote. “We need the census of population data to correctly reflect the year-round population.”

Fisher added that the census provides the town with a broad set of indicators about commuting, economic activity, seasonal residences and tourism. But only 27.8 percent of Deer Isle residents have responded to the census.

It isn’t just headcount that determines funding, but age and income, according to GWIPP study. Maine lost $1,642 per capita in 2015 because the 2010 census undercounted Maine residents—and that’s for just five large federal programs: Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, Title IV-E Foster Care, Title IV-E Adoption Assistance and the Child Care and Development Fund.

Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings said the census identifies the town’s low- and moderate-income population. “For us it’s critical for the infrastructure,” she said. “If we weren’t low- and moderate-income, we couldn’t repair the water company.” Nor, she said, could the town expand the fish pier without federal dollars determined by the census.

People can respond to the census online at my2020census.gov/.

U.S. Census Self-Response Rate by Town

Sedgwick 41.4 percent
Penobscot 39.6 percent
Surry 39.6 percent
Blue Hill 31.3 percent
Brooksville 32.9 percent
Deer Isle 27.8 percent
Stonington 27.4 percent
Brooklin 21.5 percent
Castine 12.2 percent
Isle au Haut 0 percent

Source: United States Census 2020