MURRAY – The top elected officials in Murray and Calloway County say they believe the community’s population was significantly undercounted in the 2020 U.S. Census results, and they are concerned about how that could affect grants and state and federal funding in the next 10 years.

According to the official 2020 U.S. Census results, which may be viewed at data.census.gov, Calloway County’s population is 37,103 and Murray’s population is 17,307. Murray Mayor Bob Rogers said he didn’t see how those numbers could possibly be accurate and he found it very puzzling that the official 2020 count could be so much lower than the U.S. Census Bureau’s official 2019 estimate of 19,327 people. He said he is certain Murray has grown substantially in the last decade, but the 2010 census showed a population of 17,741, meaning that if the 2020 number is accurate, Murray lost 434 people in the last 10 years.

“There is absolutely no way this number is accurate,” Rogers wrote in an email to Sabrina E. McNeal, intergovernmental affairs associate and contractor with the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Census Bureau. “Our city’s records show that  we have issued approximately 650 permits for multi-family housing units since 2010. Also, there have been many families (that have moved) to Murray — housing is very difficult to find.

“Murray State University has grown since 2010 and many of their students reside off campus in the city (of course, in 2020, due to COVID, many of these students were not in town). I question whether the census takers made contact with many, many residents. Obviously this grossly inaccurate number will have a negative impact on Murray for many years. Many grants are based on the population. Recruitment of industry and retail establishments will be made more difficult when prospects view us as having a declining number.”

Rogers also said in the email to McNeal that he believed the census takers were so concerned about dealing with COVID-19 restrictions during the time they were conducting surveys that they did not do their jobs properly. He said census takers were scheduled to set up at City Hall twice a week for three weeks, but they only came once.

“I do not believe this behavior was an exception to their efforts to have an accurate census,” Rogers concluded. “Please help correct this.”

Rogers told the Ledger & Times he was “blown away” when he saw the official population count in Murray because he was anticipating reaching 20,000 or close to it.

“That just smacked me in the face when I saw that number (of 17,307),” Rogers said.

In her response to Rogers, McNeal wrote, “Thank you for contacting the Census Bureau with your concerns about the accuracy of the 2020 Census count for Murray, KY. Governments that have questions about the census counts of their municipalities or living quarters geocodes may submit their question through the 2020 Census Count Question Resolution operation (CQR).

“An informational letter and flyer will be sent to the highest elected/appointed official of each eligible tribal, state, and local governmental unit on Dec. 1, 2021. The CQR operation officially launches Jan. 3, 2022, running through June of 2023. The flyer will contain additional information about how to prepare and submit a Census Count Question Resolution case.”

Similar to Rogers’ reaction, Calloway County Judge-Executive Kenny Imes said he was shocked when he saw the official count for the county because he thought it might get close to 40,000. He and Rogers both said they thought the alleged undercounting probably had a lot to do with how the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted classes at Murray State University throughout 2020.

“It cannot be right,” Imes said. “If you look at the precinct maps, the loss is showing up basically inside the city, which tells me that it was a COVID-related (discrepancy) based on Murray State’s inability to give accurate information and then how (adequate) the census takers’ instructions were to verify. … Every projection the state had showed us at 39,000 approaching right at 40,000. So that’s a difference of over 2,500 people … I don’t know where the gap is, and you see other cities like Louisville and Nashville growing as they naturally would be, but to say that we went down in population in Calloway County is just ludicrous.”

Imes said the county’s unemployment rate – reported by the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet at 3.9% in August – is in pretty good shape now, and there is a large demand for workers, which he thinks means the infrastructure of businesses and industrial development is growing. He said that since the U.S. Census Bureau had encouraged people to fill out their surveys online, the lack of internet access for many county residents might have also played a part in producing an underwhelming survey response. Expanding internet access has been one of Imes’ signature goals since he took office in 2018.

Imes said he talked about the issue with District 1 Congressman James Comer and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul when they were in town on Oct. 2 for the Calloway County Republican Party’s Lincoln Reagan Dinner, but he wasn’t sure if there was much they could do about it.

"The COVID-19 pandemic presented a series of historic challenges for gathering data for the 2020 Census," Comer said in an email Saturday. "Due to these unique circumstances, I've heard from numerous local officials concerned about how a potential undercount could impact funding and representation for communities like Murray. I'm sensitive to these concerns, and support all reasonable efforts to correct any undercounts and ensure that places like Calloway County aren't left behind."

“From all indications, Murray and Calloway County continue to grow in population,” said Murray State President Dr. Bob Jackson in an email. “While I am unaware of the exact statistical model which the U.S. Census Bureau uses in calculating county population, Murray State University plays a major role. Due to the pandemic, many MSU students were not able to be counted for census purposes during 2020 and this had to be a factor in the overall population projection.”

Georgann Lookofsky, communications coordinator for West Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation, said that the numbers of billed meters for Calloway County customers between 2016 and 2021 appears to show population growth in the last five years. WKRECC does not have customers within the Murray city limits, so the numbers reflect the total for Calloway County meters billed and a breakout of the residential meters billed. The numbers are reported each year on June 30, she said.

The reported number of billed meters was 10,150 in 2016; 10,151 in 2017; 10,260 in 2018; 10,308 in 2019; 10,553 in 2020; and 10,773 in 2021. Lookofsky said those totals include all the meters WKRECC serves, including residential, agricultural, small business, commercial and industrial. Lookofsky noted that with the residential numbers, WKRECC has no way to know how many live in a residence, but even without specific numbers of people, the number of customers has indisputably risen.

“Memberships are fluid, going up and down frequently, but by looking at the same moment in time each year, you can capture a trend,” Lookofsky said. “These numbers show that, while not dramatic, WKRECC’s total number of meters billed in Calloway County is steadily trending upward.”

The U.S. Census website includes a table containing information on Calloway County’s “group quarters,” which is defined as “places where people live or stay in a group living arrangement that is owned or managed by an organization providing housing and/or services for the residents.” The site explains that group quarters differ from typical household living arrangements because the people living in them are usually not related to one another. Group quarters (GQ) include such places as college residence halls, residential treatment centers, skilled nursing facilities, group homes, military barracks, prisons and worker dormitories.

Calloway County’s total GQ population for was 3,261, with the population for Murray listed as 3,200. The institutionalized population was 363 for both the city and county, and included 137 in correctional facilities for adults; 219 in nursing facilities/skilled-nursing facilities; and seven in other institutional facilities.

Calloway County’s total non-institutionalized population was 2,898, while Murray’s was 2,837. College/university housing was 2,782 for the county and 2,750 for the city, and those numbers reportedly do not include students living off-campus. Residents of other non-institutional facilities totaled 116 for the county and 87 for the city.

The U.S. Census Bureau acknowledges that collecting information on group quarters was complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially at the start.

“We temporarily suspended 2020 Census field operations on March 18, 2020, in response to the emerging pandemic,” the website says. “As the pandemic continued, it became clear that we needed to adjust our plans for enumerating group quarters.

“Two key factors complicated our plans:

•Many of the people living in GQs, such as college students, were no longer on-site to complete a paper form.

•Census Bureau staff couldn’t visit to carry out the in-person and paper-based options in facilities such as nursing homes or prisons because of pandemic-related restrictions.

“In the weeks that followed, we re-contacted administrators who had selected a paper-based method to ask them to consider submitting an eResponse or a paper listing to minimize in-person contact.

“We launched our eResponse option as scheduled in April 2020 and kept it open through the conclusion of field data collection. Because of the pandemic, we pushed back the start of our in-person GQ work to July 1 and completed these activities on Sept. 3.

“We are especially grateful for the tremendous support we received from GQ administrators. Despite dealing with enormous challenges of their own, most found time to complete the 2020 Census for their facilities.”

Dr. Robin Zhang, professor and chair of the Murray State Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, studies and teaches geography, including population geography.

“Yes, it is very likely that we were undercounted due to a significant number of students who weren’t physically here amid the pandemic, who would normally reside in Murray (on campus or in rental properties),” Zhang said in an email. “Close to 50% of Spring 2021 courses were 100% Zoom or online. I don’t think Murray is alone.”

Zhang noted that other rural college towns have had similar complaints about the 2020 Census. For example, an Oct. 1 column by Mark Bennett in the Tribune-Star in Terre Haute, Indiana – home of Indiana State University – was titled “Census stuns college towns.” Even before the census was completed, a July 30, 2020, article by Elizabeth Redden titled “Counting Them In or Out?” was published by the Inside Higher Ed website, noting that many college towns were reporting low response rates.

“I don’t know if there are any fixes to the 2020 Census results,” Zhang said .“If there is a lesson learned, local city and county governments can take the opportunity for public education and outreach, letting residents know that participation in Census is important to our community.”