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2020 Census

Editorial: Integrate rural America into the new census era

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At the turn of the 20th century, communities in Virginia and across the country had a battle on their hands.

A U.S. Postal Service (USPS) document notes that in 1890, 65% of America lived in rural areas. Dating back to 1863, many city residents reaped the benefits of free mail delivery, while farm families traveled long distances to pick up their mail or paid private carriers. “Why should the cities have fancy mail service and the old colonial system still prevail in the country districts?” asked one farmer.

In the 21st century, the same calculus applies to the census. Almost 7 in 10 Virginia households have self-responded in 2020, with many using the new online option. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed field operations, and remote areas will wait longer for foot soldiers to hand-deliver forms.

We ask: Why should the cities have fancy internet access and the old colonial system still prevail in the country districts? It’s time to integrate rural America into the new census era.

Postmaster General John Wanamaker (1889-93) and members of Congress were willing to take a risk. Despite political opposition, they pushed for rural free delivery (RFD). In 1893, $10,000 went toward a trial run of the service.

In October 1896, Palmyra became the first post office in the commonwealth with RFD service. By 1904, dozens of other post offices added RFD routes, including Richmond (March 1, 1900), Charlottesville (Aug. 1, 1902), Alexandria (July 1, 1902), Ashland (March 2, 1903) and Lynchburg (April 1, 1904).

What caused the spike in service? A museum exhibit from the National Agricultural Library explains how pressure from the Grange — an organization still advocating for agricultural communities today — propelled Congress to boost RFD appropriations to $40,000 in 1896.

And since farmers were a strong voting bloc, Congress also afforded them the chance to petition for new routes. Over the ensuing six years, more than 10,000 requests came in, which helped cement RFD as a permanent service in 1902, the USPS notes.

“Rural free delivery brings the farm within the daily range of the intellectual and commercial activities of the world, and the isolation and monotony which have been the bane of agricultural life are sensibly mitigated,” wrote editorial clerk Charles H. Greathouse in “Free Delivery of Rural Mails,” a dispatch from the 1900 Department of Agriculture yearbook.

Today, the commonwealth and the nation clearly are more developed. A state fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates that in 2019, more than 7.5 million Virginians (87.8%) lived in urban areas. But a little more than 1 million people in the commonwealth still live in rural communities. Why should they face greater hurdles and longer waits to be counted in the census?

As of May 17, 22 of 133 Virginia localities still had 2020 census participation rates under 50% — many of which are rural. That includes Lee, Bath, Buchanan, Accomack and Highland counties — the only five areas with response rates under 35% as of Monday. At a hyperlocal level, six Virginia communities still had self-response rates under 10% — Pocahontas (4.8%), St. Charles (5.9%), Dungannon (6.8%), Jonesville (9.2%), Honaker (9.7%) and Tangier (9.9%).

We are in a similar moment as the late 19th century. Are rural communities going to have to wait nearly 30 years before their census experience takes 10 minutes online? Is it going to require thousands of petitions? What’s the opposition to this service?

According to a recent NPR report, the U.S. Census Bureau is training workers on how to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Personal protective equipment consists of new gloves each day, new masks every 10 days and batches of sanitizer. Questionnaires are dropped off, so households can avoid direct contact.

With or without COVID-19, reaching a complete census count in rural areas requires thinking that rises to the level of rural free delivery for mail. Nearly 125 years after Palmyra serviced the first Virginia RFD route, almost 71% of Fluvanna County households have self-responded to the census.

But the rate of people responding via the internet greatly varies among the county’s five census tracts, from a low of 52% (Tract 202) to a high of 74.2% (Tract 201.03). These gaps in responses can lead to further divides in congressional representation; federal funding for local services such as schools, roads and hospitals; and the accuracy of data businesses use to decide where to locate and create jobs.

In the 1898 annual report of the Postmaster General, excerpts captured how important RFD was for Palmyra and beyond. “All of my neighbors are very greatly benefited by the rural free delivery, and I really do believe the benefits received justify the expense, and would be glad if it continued,” Fluvanna County Treasurer T.E. Cowherd said.

We need to do more than realize that a revolutionary investment in high-speed internet service is needed. We need to execute it. The expense is justified and now is the time to experiment.

Chris Gentilviso

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