54.1% of Elon residents have completed the 2020 Census, which began collecting responses in March, according to data released from the U.S. Census Bureau

Every 10 years, the census is used to determine the population of towns, states and, ultimately, the country. The results from the census determine how many seats in Congress each state gets and how much federal funding is sent to states and local communities each year.

Alamance County could lose more than $7 million in annual funding based on nonresponse to the census, a report from the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management said.

Richard Roedner, town manager of Elon, said the town’s response rate is dismal. 

“The significant portion of our population is students who live on campus that the university has already reported in,” Roedner said. “If you look at the year-round population that would mean we have a really dismal response rate.”

The town’s population according to the 2010 census was 9,419. Almost half of the population was in the 18 to 24 age range, according to the census.

In the 2009-2010 academic year, 5,666 students –– more than half of the town’s population –– were enrolled at Elon University. 

Elon University students are counted in the census as residents of the town. Students who live in university-owned housing are counted by the university, but those who live off-campus must complete a census themself. 

On Jun. 18, Steve Dillingham, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, sent a letter to college and university presidents asking them to provide roster information for off-campus students, according to a release from the bureau. 

“The census counts people — including college students — where they usually live as of April 1, 2020, even if they left town early because of a school closure or shift to distance learning,” Dillingham wrote in the letter. “The data is important to your state and locality’s funding, political representation and planning. We are already working with your student housing administrative staff to ensure your on-campus students are counted. “

Census Bureau staff began contacting universities on Jun. 16 to “discuss the collection of basic information about students who live off-campus, including local address information,” the letter said. 

Roedner said unlike larger cities in North Carolina, Elon’s budget relies more on sales and property taxes than on federal funding. The town would feel an indirect impact from a high nonresponse rate, he said.

“The issue is how the federal government portions authority through the House and how the federal government divides up where its resources go,” Roedner said. “The state [Department of Transportation] might get less money from the federal government. If the state DOT gets less money from the federal government, Elon gets less money from the state of North Carolina.”

Housing vouchers, welfare programs and school funding are a few of the things that would be  affected by federal funding, Roedner said. 

North Carolina receives almost $16 billion annually in federal funding, according to the N.C. Counts Coalition. A single missed person in the census count is equivalent to losing close to $16,000 in funding over a 10-year period, the Coalition said. 

Kathleen Patterson, downtown Elon development administrator and public information officer, said a low census count could “impact everything.”

“It really does play into your road infrastructure, your water and sewer infrastructure, social services,” she said. “All of that is determined on your census, on how much the federal government is going to allot for you to get. So if it’s underreported, you’re going to get less and that means you can do less.”

Patterson said an inaccurate count could impact the town’s development plans –– like adding more parking, upgrading to wider sidewalks and moving water lines.

“We want to do all those things, but if you’re looking at it from the perspective of a lower census count, our funding from the federal government will be lower,” she said. 

Both Roedner and Patterson said they didn’t know exactly why the town’s response rate is low, but said the coronavirus pandemic and political concerns with the census may have played a role.

“I know that there’s some fear just because of the political environment that we’re in that it’s going to be used against people or things like that,” Patterson said. “It is completely confidential and is completely safe. They aren’t sharing who reported or what your status is. It is truly just where were you, how many were there with you, what’s their ages and that’s it.” 

Originally, census data collection was expected to be completed by the end of July. But, the process of in-person counting was delayed due to the coronavirus.

Area census offices will begin non-response followup on Aug. 11 and plans to conclude data collection no later than Oct. 31, according to the bureau. Census takers will also be trained on social distancing protocols and will be issued personal protective equipment before knocking on residents’ doors, the bureau said. 

The 2020 Census can be completed online, by phone or by mail