Maine is lagging badly in its responses to the U.S. Census Bureau’s effort to count Americans, a problem that could wind up costing the state tens of millions of dollars in federal aid.

With just 35.7% of households responding to initial census requests, the state ranks 46th in the nation, far behind most states, including half a dozen where more than half the people have provided census information.

In this map showing the census response rate by county through April 4, the darker the color, the worse the rate. U.S. Census Bureau

The self-response rate is especially poor in Maine’s most rural counties, particularly in Hancock, Franklin and Piscataquis counties, where fewer than one in four households have taken up the bureau’s request to provide information.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Monday that people are understandably focusing on issues more central to their lives.

“People are hunkered down,” he said, worrying about family and friends and “an economy crashing through the floor.”

As a result, Dunlap said, “it is going to take us a little bit longer to get them the numbers.”

It doesn’t help that field workers for the census aren’t able to knock on doors or hit the streets because of the coronavirus pandemic that has many states, including Maine, locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Census Bureau has suspended its field operations until at least April 15, a deadline that may be extended. It said it took the step to help protect “the health and safety” of Americans.

Census takers who were supposed to interview people in remote parts of northern Maine and southeastern Alaska are on hold. When they do get a chance to go out in the field, they’ll be required to observe the 6-foot physical distancing rule to minimize exposure to the virus.

Failing to provide the data for the census could wind up reducing federal aid to Maine and shifting political power away from areas with poor response rates.

State officials have warned that more than $675 billion in federal funds is distributed based on population – others estimate it could be more than $1.5 trillion — so ensuring everyone is counted matters in terms of how much Maine gets for such things as transportation, housing, education, health care.

Dunlap said people need to understand how important it is to make sure they are counted.

Population figures, he said, help determine everything from where post offices are placed to how good an interest rate the state can get when it sells bonds.

The figures are also used to draw the lines of political districts so areas that do better at counting every resident wind up with more clout in Augusta and Washington than those that fail the challenge of making sure everyone is listed on the 10-year census.

In general, the Portland area has been quickest to weigh in while the small towns of western and northern Maine have lagged far behind.

In the 1st Congressional District, which stretches from Waterville to the coast and encompasses most of southern Maine, the overall response rate was 39.2% as of midnight Sunday.

In the sprawling 2nd Congressional District, the most rural congressional district east of the Mississippi River, the response rate was 32.3% — and even that is somewhat misleading because Lewiston, Auburn and Bangor were each above 40% in their responses.

Take out its cities and the 2nd District response rate is below 30%, far beneath the national average of 44.5%.

Part of the problem for some Mainers, Dunlap said, is that they don’t have the computers and connectivity to fill out the form online. They can phone in their answers or send a form by mail, however.

The 2nd Congressional District’s congressman, Democrat Jared Golden of Lewiston, urged constituents to take the time to fill out the census form.

“Making sure every Mainer is counted helps Maine build roads, fund schools and support other critical projects,” Golden said.

Maine has one municipality, Glenwood, that hasn’t had a single response yet, one of 42 towns in the nation with that distinction. Glenwood has a population of three people.

The 483 other towns and cities in Maine have had at least some response.

Only one city, Belfast, has topped 50% so far.

The town with the best response rate is North Yarmouth at 58.5%.

Three counties – Cumberland, Sagadahoc and Androscoggin – have response rates double that of the county with the lowest response rate, Piscataquis. The response rate in Piscataquis puts the county among the lowest 10% in the country.

The Maine Complete Count Committee has a plan to boost the response rate in the state.

Unfortunately, the plan, finished in March, depends in part on messaging at in-person events, posters in public places, a push at public libraries and other initiatives complicated or made impossible by the stay-at-home edict issued by Gov. Janet Mills to thwart the spread of COVID-19.

Most Mainers received a form in the mail from the Census Bureau last month encouraging them to respond online at 2020Census.gov or by phone on the number provided on the form. People can also send their answers through the mail.

Under the Constitution, the census must be completed in time to provide apportionment information to the president and Congress by Dec. 31.

The bureau has long planned to finish its count by July 31, but it is under pressure from some members of Congress and others to extend its normal deadline for as long as three extra months to make up for the problems caused by COVID-19.

Maine response rates by county:

1. Cumberland, 43.2%

2. Sagadahoc, 42.8%

3. Androscoggin, 41.2%

4. Kennebec, 37.6%

5. Waldo, 37.4%

6. Penobscot, 37.2%

7. York, 37.1%

8. Knox, 32.9%

9. Aroostook, 32.7%

10. Somerset, 30.5%

11. Oxford, 29.2%

12. Washington, 27.8%

13. Lincoln, 26.7%

14. Hancock, 22.6%

15. Franklin, 21.8%

16. Piscataquis, 20.8%


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