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Census participation numbers bittersweet for SOWEGA

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

LEESBURG, Ga -- Census data obtained by the Herald shows that the Southwestern region of the state could be in rough shape in terms of future federal and state funding as well as political representation compared to the rest of the state based on the rates of participation in the 2010 Census.

In an analysis of federal census figures conducted by the Herald, Southwest Georgia had some of the lowest rates of participation in the census of counties in the state.

By constitutional mandate, the federal government is required to do at least one count of American residents every ten years. Those counts are the basis for many formulas used to determine where and how much federal and state funding is dolled out as well as how much political representation is needed for any particular area.

While participation rates won't shed much light on how much the Southwest Georgia population has fluctuated since the 2000 Census, it does suggest how accurate the 2010 Census will be and a broader picture on how representation and funding could be impacted when the population statistics are released Dec. 31.

From looking at available Census figures, Southwest Georgia appears to have the largest disparity in participation rates of any region in the state.

The swath of roughly 31 counties that comprise the current 2nd Congressional District are home to both the county with the state's highest participation rate -- Lee County at 83 percent -- and the county with the state's lowest participation rate -- Quitman County at 29 percent.

The majority of counties in the area hover between 55 percent and 73 percent.

Click here to see the participation map.

Lee County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy praised the work of the county's Census Committee and specifically their head, Vice Chairman Rick Muggridge, as the reason for having such a high participation rate.

"They really just worked hard. They got out there, put the signs up, did the grunt work and its already paid off in increasing our participation rate," Duffy said. "Hopefully the higher participation rate will mean a more accurate count and a more accurate count will mean we'll be in a better position for funding and representation both in Washington and Atlanta."

The 83 percent mark is 20 percent higher than the participation rate in the 2000 Census and is 11 percent higher than the national average.

In Dougherty County, the 2010 participation rate mirrored the 2000 participation rate of 72 percent and is dead on with the national average.

Other county results of note include Worth County, which saw their participation rate jump 16 percent from 60 percent in 2000 to 77 percent in 2010; Terrell County, who went from 64 percent to 74 percent; and Baker who went from 49 to 51 percent.

On the flip side, Randolph County's 2010 participation rate fell by 16 percent going from 56 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2010; Seminole County dropping from 53 percent to 48 percent; and Webster County dropping from 57 percent to 49 percent.

Heading into the January session of the Georgia General Assembly, public officials were already concerned that the shear disparity in population densities between Southwest Georgia and other parts of the state, namely fast-growing metro areas like Atlanta and Macon, would make it hard to keep representation in this part of the state at current levels.

With news of the participation rates, prospects are looking even more grim that Southwest Georgia's voice under the gold dome will be heard as major urban centers continue to grow.

During the Census count undertaken earlier this year, local business officials, including those at the Albany-Area Chamber of Commerce, said they had real concerns that the participation rate, as well as the rapid growth of sectors of the state outside of Southwest Georgia, would make it tough for this part of the state to receive its share of the state's increasingly scarce resources for infrastructure, public safety and economic development.

Richard Morris, chairman of the Quitman County Commission, said he was frustrated with his county's response rate to the Census and said that he has real concerns that their low participation rate will come back to haunt them throughout the next decade.

"I just don't understand it," he said. "We went out to churches, we spoke at civic clubs we held meetings and talked about it everywhere we went and we still had people hiding from Census workers. I just don't get it."

"No matter how you feel about government --- and I know there is public mistrust of government -- the Census has been around a long time and its important to be counted so that people who should be sharing the burden are and folks aren't unfairly taking the load."