Arkansas officials prepare for upcoming 2020 Census as state population tops three million

December 16-22, 2019

By Wesley Brown


When the U.S. Census Bureau’s population estimates for Arkansas topped the three million mark for the first time in 2016, Gov. Asa Hutchinson touted the accomplishment as another indicator of the state’s robust economic growth.


Three and a half years later, Hutchinson and other key groups are spreading the message statewide on the importance of making sure every Arkansan is counted in the upcoming 2020 Census that kicks off in mid-March.


To take on that mammoth task, the U.S. Census Bureau in October launched a national recruitment effort to hire 500,000 temporary workers to help conduct the national count. The bureau, housed within the U.S. Department of Commerce, also recently released its interactive map that details how the agency plans to contact and count everyone by geographic location.


In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed an executive order in late August to create the state Census 2020 Complete-Count Committee to ensure all Arkansas residents are accurately counted during the upcoming survey, especially in areas of the state that Commerce Department has determined as “hard-to-count” census tracts. That 30-person panel, chaired by Fort Smith Mayor George McGill, has met monthly since October and submitted the first progress report to Hutchinson on Nov. 1.


“Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau surveys the United States to determine the nation’s population,” said Gov. Hutchinson. “April 1, 2020 is Census Day. In Arkansas, we’ve been preparing for years, and an accurate count of Arkansas’s population is critical. The most obvious reason is that the federal government allocates funding back to the states based upon population counts.”


In speaking with the Daily Record, McGill said he was tasked by Hutchinson to get the word out about the 10-year population count and “create maximum awareness of the census.” Mayor McGill said the panel would submit a more complete “Census Day” report to the governor by April 1, 2020, and a final narrative no later than Dec. 31, 2020.


“We must remind every Arkansan and make them aware of the numbers that are generated by the census and how much funding we will get for Medicaid, education for our schools, money for our roads … and a whole wide range of services we count on in Arkansas to care for our citizens,” said McGill.


McGill said it is widely known that Arkansas was one of the 50 states vastly undercounted in the 2010 census and other past ten-year population surveys. He said each Arkansan not accounted for represents $2,500 to $4,000 in federal funding per person that will not funnel down to state budget coffers from the federal government. As head of the governor’s task force, McGill said the volunteer panel includes state, municipal, and county government officials, as well as citizen and private sector representatives. The group is charged with directing the state’s communication campaign to boost self-response and encourage 100 percent participation in the census in Arkansas.


To date, Congress has appropriated funding for all 50 states to release a series of public service announcements (PSAs) and paid media spots to educate U.S. residents on how to respond to the census. McGill said he and other committee members will soon travel to the Arkansas Education Television Network (AETN) headquarters in Conway to begin making PSAs for Arkansas that will air in early 2020.


Also, the U.S. Census Bureau on Dec. 9 unveiled its integrated communications campaign, which will include a paid ad spots to reach a wide range of audiences. Led by global marketing agency VMLY&R, the 2020 ad campaign will begin running across multiple platforms in January, including print and digital outlets, television and radio, billboards, and at transit stations, grocery stores and movie theaters throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico.


According to bureau officials, the $250 million media buy will reach 99 percent of all households in communities across the nation, particularly in multicultural and hard-to-count (HTC) populations. Advertising to reach homes in remote Alaska will be unveiled on Dec. 16 as the U.S. Census Bureau officials begin its first enumeration process in January to reach these communities.


“The U.S. Census Bureau is conducting a robust communications campaign to reach everyone living in the United States and paid advertising is key to this campaign,” said Alex Hughes, VMLY&R executive director and head of the bureau’s ad campaign. 


Although the governor’s committee is tasked with communicating the importance of being counted, McGill said the separately funded Arkansas Counts partnership is also working on a “ground game” to provide critical resources to reach Arkansans in the HTC areas. 


Arkansas Counts includes a diverse group of community partners and nonprofits across the state that have joined to serve as “census ambassadors” statewide.  The volunteer coalition recently handed out grants ranging from $5,000 and $20,000, funded by the Census Bureau, to local community groups to conduct outreach and education activities in undercounted census tracts in rural and urban communities alike.


Like McGill, Bobby Hart, superintendent of Hope Public School District, said the census impacts Arkansas budgets for essential programs like Medicaid, SNAP, highways and transportation, education & childcare programs, and affordable housing programs. Federal data shows Arkansas received more than $9 billion from federal spending programs based on the 2010 census. A one percent undercount of Arkansas in 2020 may result in between $750 million to $1 billion in lost funds over ten years, he said.


Hart, a member of the Arkansas Counts subcommittee guiding the local census outreach with state and federal officials, said he chose to join the volunteer effort to make sure all people in Arkansas are represented. He said children under five years old, families living below the national poverty level, minorities, the LGBTQ community, and English-language learners often don’t respond to the census at the same rate as the rest of the population.


“There is a plethora of folks who consider themselves on the margins or are sometimes treated as they are on the margins – and they don’t always respond for a number of reasons,” said the Hempstead County school administrator. 


Once the decennial survey officially begins in March, most Arkansas residents will receive an invitation for the first time in U.S. history to complete the 8-page census questionnaire online or by phone, while other households will receive a paper form along with an invite to respond over the internet. All three million or more people residing in Arkansas not responding by mid-April will then receive a paper questionnaire by mail or canvassers, officials said. 


“We also want to encourage people – whether it be business or schools or any kind of entity – to promote [it] as a means of not only of counting how many folks we have in Arkansas, but also as an economic driver in our communities,” said Hart.


As a rural state with poor broadband access in many areas, both Hart and McGill said Arkansas officials would be providing mobile kiosks locally where people can complete the census online. Local, state and federal census officials and volunteers will also be working with municipal leaders to educate citizens on the importance of being counted for needed local funding and services.   


“Ten years ago, we didn’t have the technology. This time, there is going to be a major push toward taking the census online,” said McGill.  




Back in 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Arkansas’ population topped the three million mark – an accomplishment and indicator of the state’s economic growth. Now Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other leaders are pushing for participation on Census day, as it is critical for federal funding and government services. Learn more on page 14. (Source: Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)



  • Gov. Asa Hutchinson
    Gov. Asa Hutchinson
  • Bobby Hart, superintendent of Hope Public School District
    Bobby Hart, superintendent of Hope Public School District
  • Fort Smith Mayor George McGill
    Fort Smith Mayor George McGill