Census Response: Politics, Place, Poverty

It's true. Counties that had higher than average votes for John McCain in 2008 are also slower to send back their Census forms.

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What explains the differences from place to place in the 2010 Census response rate?

The map above shows the percentage of households in rural counties that have sent back their Census forms. (Click on the map to see a bigger version.) The lowest response rate comes from Hinsdale County, Colorado, the least densely populated county in the state. (Census count in 2000 for Hinsdale tallied 790 souls.) Only 17% of the county’s population had sent back Census forms by Monday.

Meanwhile, the highest response rate (as of April 5) could be found in two counties: Pierce County, North Dakota, and Brown County, Minnesota. These two counties toped 81%. (To find the latest response rates — they are updated every day — go here.) 

There have been all sorts of explanations for why some places have been quick to respond to the Census while others have lagged. One report suggested Republicans may be holding back as a protest against big government.  Another reporter claimed to have “debunked” this story. 

In an effort to understand why counties have higher response rates than others, the Daily Yonder has conducted an analysis at the county/parish level to help explain the variation in the 2010 census response rates.

According to the U.S.  Bureau, the average national response rate was close to 60% as of April 5th, 2010.  Our first question is whether rural areas are responding at different rates than urban counties. They are. The graph here shows the response rates broken down between metro counties, counties with small cities (micro counties) and those purely rural counties. 

Roberto Gallardo
Rural response rates lags those in urban areas and small cities.
Both metro counties and small city counties had response rates above the national average (59.75% to be precise). Rural counties were below.

Both metro and micro counties in the country are above the national average (59.75%) while noncore counties fall below the national average.

Roberto Gallardo
Counties with above average votes for McCain are also slower to respond to the Census.
What about other factors? For example, are counties that voted for Republican John McCain in 2008 responding differently than counties that voted for Barack Obama?

Well, they are. We pulled out all the counties (rural and urban) that voted for John McCain in 2008 at rates above the national average. We found that nearly 58% of the pro-McCain counties are responding BELOW the national average. Only 42% of the pro-McCain counties are responding to the Census at rates above the national average. In other words, the more votes McCain received in a county in 2008, the fewer Census forms that county has returned by April 5th 2010. (And, yes, this relationship is statistically significant.)

Roberto Gallardo
Counties with high poverty rates are more likely to be slow in responding to the Census.
What about race? It turns out that 67% of the counties with an above average percentage of white residents are returning their Census forms at rates better than the national average. Only about a third of the counties with high percentages of white residents are returning their Census at below average rates. 

Counties with high levels of poor people are slow responders. Only a third of the counties with poverty rates above the national average are also above the national average in responding to the Census. The higher the poverty rate, the lower the census response rate. Again, this relationship is statistically significant.

When all the math is finished, four variables explain about a third of the differences in response rate among counties. These variables are the percent of Republican votes in 2008, the percent white in 2008, the percent in poverty in 2008, and whether a county is urban or rural. 

Urban counties that are richer and whiter than average are sending back their Census forms in larger numbers than counties that are rural, poorer, less white and voted for John McCain in 2008.

Roberto Gallardo is a Research Associate at Mississippi State University’s Southern Rural Development Center.




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