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Census data show small drop in Lincoln County's population

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | October 12, 2021 7:00 AM

Despite evidence suggesting Lincoln County is seeing an influx of newcomers, the county’s population has remained relatively stable over the last 10 years, according to the latest census count.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported the county lost just 10 residents between its 2010 and 2020 decennial counts. As of the latest tally, the county has 19,677 residents.

The figures, released by the bureau in August, are still under review by state officials. Exploring how the coronavirus pandemic might have affected counting and the impacts of a new confidentiality protection system are among the top areas of review, according to Mary Craigle, research and information services bureau chief at the Montana Department of Commerce.

“As with nearly every aspect of daily life, the COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges for getting an accurate census count,” said Craigle in an Oct. 1 statement.

At the start of the pandemic, officials canceled many planned events around the state aimed at raising awareness of the 2020 census. Census staff also shelved a plan to drop off packets at over 120,000 Montana households starting in March 2020. It took until May for most of these households to receive materials inviting them to participate in the census. Some households have yet to receive the information.

Since officials cannot send census information to post office boxes or rural route addresses, between 20 and 35 percent of state households had to wait until the end of July — or five months into the start of the count in Montana — to receive an invitation to respond to the census.

Thanks to federal pandemic funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, state officials were able to rapidly increase outreach efforts in rural, tribal and campus areas starting in August of last year. The push helped Montana reach its goal of a 60 percent self-response rate, according to Craigle. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 99 percent of households were accounted for in the state.

Craigle was concerned that the late push might have affected the accuracy of counts, particularly in rural communities. State officials are comparing the recent tally with past census estimates and counts from databases compiled by other agencies, including the state Department of Revenue's property record.

In Lincoln County, Craigle has noticed that the census reported a puzzling decrease of 460 housing units between 2010 and 2020.

“Whether a housing unit is the primary residence or a second home, it should be included in the total count of housing units by the U.S. Census Bureau in the decennial count,” she said in the statement.

A new effort by the bureau to protect private information also may have affected the accuracy of last year’s data. To prevent hackers from piecing together the identities of people and businesses responding to the census, officials used a new disclosure avoidance system. Craigle said the system adds statistical noise to information residents provided.

“The purpose of adding the ‘noise’ is to foil attempts to [identify] individuals by combining census data with other publicly available information, such as credit reports, voter registration rolls and property records,” she said.

Regardless of the uncertainties, Kristin Smith, a Libby City councilor with a background in community planning and redevelopment, said the recent count followed a long-term population trend in the county. After a boom in the 1960s and ’70s, the county’s population dropped. For the past three decades, the census count has stabilized at just over 19,000.

Over the last two years, Smith said the county has seen signs of growth. The real estate market has heated up and local banks are seeing more clients open accounts. Smith expected, however, a lag between when new residents settled in the county and when they appeared in the census count.

Smith noted that deaths outpacing births could have muted some of Lincoln County’s recent growth. Local numbers might be low because a portion of the county’s population has historically withheld census information out of privacy concerns.

“No one is trying to find out about your personal business,” said Smith.

Refusing to participate ultimately harms the county, said Smith. Anonymized data from the census determines how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding gets distributed to states, counties and schools, according to the U.S. Census website.

The population of Montana increased by nearly 10 percent, hitting 1,080,000 residents, between 2010 and 2020. Gallatin County led the state with a 33 percent growth in population, becoming Montana’s second-largest county, according to the Associated Press. Nearby Flathead County and Sanders County saw population increases of roughly 15 and 7 percent respectively.