Rural communities pose special challenges for 2020 census

by | Feb 24, 2020 | Census 2020

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By Kathleen Weinstein – as told to Ethnic Media Services

Since 1910, the Census Bureau has defined rural America as any place that doesn’t meet its criteria for urban.

Those criteria include having a population of at least 2,500 people, with 1,500 of them NOT living in group quarters such as nursing facilities, dormitories or prisons.

In 1910, 54.4% of the country’s population lived in rural America, as measured in the census that year. By 2010, that percentage had dropped to 19.3% — 60 million of the total U.S. population of approximately 309 million.

That other 80.7% of the 2010 population lives either in one of the country’s 486 urban areas or its 3,087 less-dense “urban clusters” that, between them, take up only about 3% of the land mass.

In just the past several years, however, the national trend toward urbanization has started to turn.

The American Community Survey, an annual Census Bureau project that surveys about 3 million people per year, found that after years of steady decline, including a drop of 15,000 in 2015, the U.S. rural population grew by 33,000 from 2016-2017.

Likewise, urban population growth is slowing nationwide.

But in California, the country’s most populous state, things are different. Two of the fastest growing regions in the state, according to Public Policy of Institute of California citations of state department of finance records

(, are and will remain “over the next several decades” the San Francisco Bay Area and the Sacramento metropolitan area.

Despite all that, California is also home to some very rural regions. The census deems three of its counties — Alpine, Mariposa and Trinity — 100% rural and another, Sierra, 99.7% rural. The census tallied 36,452 people in those four counties in 2010.

It can be difficult to find people when they’re more widely dispersed. East of Sacramento in Amador County the Census Bureau in 2010 only found an average of 1.6 residents per square mile. In Inyo County, that number was 1.8. Modoc, Sierra, Trinity and Mono counties’ numbers came in at 2.5, 3.4, 4.3 and 4.7, respectively.

Kathleen Weinstein, who lives in Pine Mountain Club, an unincorporated community in Kern County’s Los Padres National Forest, agreed to share some of her thoughts on the challenges her community and others like it pose for the 2020 Census.

-Mark Hedin

Pine Mountain Club, in the Los Padres National Forest in unincorporated Kern County, is beautiful. The air is clear, the stars are bright and you know your neighbors.

More people are relocating to Kern County in the center of California for its lower rents and mortgages and to escape city life. If financially sound, rural living is paradise. But if declining finances push you into rural living, life can be tough.

Demographics are shifting. The rural poor can’t be undercounted this time. Census takers have to look outside the boxes on the forms.

Many live here only part-time. Jobs are in the cities, but affordable housing is in the mountains. Workers split their time between the two, but must pick one as their legal address, though they may receive goods and services from two counties. Can they be split-counted?

I recently met a couple who live here in Pine Mountain Club but on Mondays, the husband takes the train to Dana Point where he works and lives on a boat. He returns on Friday after spending money in Orange County all week. Kern could use that tax revenue and would if it had jobs.

The federal government plan for collecting census data next year is to rely for the first time on online responses to its 10-question form. This may add a new challenge to the task of counting people who live almost off the grid.

Cell phone service came to our area about 10 years ago and there are spots still without cell service. Large commercial servers don’t adequately serve rural communities because there are not enough customers and local Internet is often down due to just plain inadequate service.

Those who can afford it have reliable cell phone service and even high-speed Internet, but they pay a price for it. Many, however, can’t afford reliable electronic communication. Information about the census may not get out to them.

The census plans to first try to identify where people are living, then send mailers instructing them how to fill out their census forms online and then, if no response arrives, try sending forms out in the mail and, as a last resort, dispatch an enumerator in person to try to collect census data.

The lack of population density works against traditional, non-digital outreach such as broadcast public service announcements, billboards or advertising on the sides of buses.

There is none of that here. Our local weekly paper is good at getting things out, but people have to read it. A lot of people on the mountain don’t read the paper.

Those are just the underlying challenges.

Then there are the communities themselves, with people who intentionally make little or no contact with the world. They used to be called hermits. Now it’s called “living off the grid.” They choose to be isolated. They may not even have a physical address, let alone an electronic one. They probably don’t want to be counted.

How do you gain their trust? I met a homeless woman last month. She was living in the Motel 6 with her cat and dog. She wanted to work but couldn’t get hired on the mountain. She was paranoid about anyone knowing her situation, which made it difficult to help her. We need universal mental health care!

Isolated families often home-school their children. How can we ensure these children are counted?

Schools in some communities are doing census outreach work, enlisting students’ help in getting their families counted. For home-schoolers, of course, this won’t help.

Out here, the homeless camp out in the forest. … You may see evidence of them when you are out hiking. Some are known to us through their family ties, but others are strangers. They come and go. Mental illness and possibly outstanding warrants for their arrest keep them from having roots.

Many homes in rural communities are vacant, and squatters are not uncommon. A segment of our population shares their homes with others. It is an income generator for those who have spare space, but such situations can be unstable, and tenants move frequently from home to home, depending on their employment status.

There are many ways in which the circumstances of rural and city folk differ.

In my opinion, data collected by the census is not an accurate measure of rural standards of living. Asking someone how much they make a year sets a false standard.

Urban expenses, needs and priorities are not the same for rural residents. But understanding that doesn’t diminish the need for data on how many people live where they do. That data can help determine what those needs and priorities are, and allocating government resources is largely based on that data.

Transportation is a serious concern in rural communities. Public transit exists, but accessing it is more difficult outside of cities. One has to get to where it is and then back home. Gas, tires and auto maintenance may come before (other) essentials. Rural roads are often unpaved, not only making it difficult to get in and out, but putting more wear and tear on vehicles.

The condition of those roads is dependent on census-directed government spending allocations, and road maintenance impacts the community in myriad ways.

For instance, local ambulances may not be able to reach a home due to road conditions. Health care standards differ, too, in ways far beyond an ambulance’s difficulties in responding to an emergency.

Our local village health clinic closed in April due to financial concerns. They would see anyone and even made house calls on occasion. There’s a clinic 17 miles away in Lebec, but it requires an appointment and insurance. Urgent care is an hour away or more.

For regular health care, it’s off to the city. Since health care in rural areas is scarce and public transportation generally poor, the mentally ill are not getting proper treatment. When their health reaches a breaking point, they become “criminals.” Emergency mental health care in rural communities is the SWAT team from the city. Firemen/paramedic services via 911 in Kern County are limited.

In Pine Mountain Club, voters agreed to extra taxes to pay for fire department-provided paramedic services. But less than 5 miles away, in Frazier Park, there are no such accommodations.

When you choose to live rurally, you recognize that there will be some downsides to being far from goods and services. Besides the obvious obstacles to accurately counting the population — fear and apathy — in unincorporated rural areas you can add isolation.

Getting a full, accurate tally of who’s living off the grid and nearby will be no simple task in 2020 yet their needs must be included in all the decisions that derive from census data that can benefit their communities.

Kathleen Weinstein

Kathleen Weinstein

Kathleen Weinstein lives in Pine Mountain Club, an unincorporated community in the Los Padres National Forest, in Kern County. After attending a Bakersfield strategy session organized by Ethnic Media Services about the 2020 Census, she agreed to share some of her thoughts on the difficulties the government will face in its efforts to accurately count who is in that community and what their needs and circumstances really are.