Panhandle Perspectives: 2020 Census is rural Nebraska’s opportunity to be counted – and money is at stake

census response rate map
Nebraska’s self-response rate to the 2020 Census, by county, as of April 26 is depicted in this computer screen capture. The view is taken from a U.S. Census website. Counties shaded in yellow, orange and brown indicate where the self-response rate is at or below 50 percent. Darker shading indicates a lower response. Counties shaded in blue indicate a response of 51 percent or higher; darker blue shading indicates a higher response. Rural counties tend to have a lower response rate in much of western Nebraska.
April 28, 2020

Lincoln, Neb. —Many households in Nebraska’s rural counties, especially in the Panhandle and Sandhills, are slow in responding to the 2020 Census, compared to those in more populous counties.

If that trend continues, parts of rural Nebraska could potentially lose a lot of dollars and growth opportunities over the next decade, according to several Nebraska Extension Community Vitality educators and specialists. They are encouraging rural Nebraskans to make sure they are counted in the 2020 Census.

Community Vitality professionals have been receiving updates about Census response from David Drozd, research coordinator of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), who shares data from “real-time response rates” to the 2020 Census that the Bureau updates daily. Response rates are the percentage of households that have self-responded to mailings from the Census Bureau, either on the internet or via mail.

The areas where response is lower are predominately rural, according to Drozd. Counties with higher response rates tend to be outlying/commuting areas for the Omaha, Lincoln, and Grand Island metros. Other areas with higher household response rates include Nebraska’s two largest counties, Douglas and Lancaster, and counties with a medium-sized community serving as a regional center for goods and services like Platte, Madison, Adams, and Buffalo counties.

Counties with lower response rates were concentrated primarily in the western half of the state, as well as the Sandhills, the southwest corner, and the northeast corner of Nebraska (bordering the Missouri River).

The only counties in the Panhandle above a 50 percent response rate were Box Butte, Dawes, Cheyenne, and Scotts Bluff.

As a state, Nebraska has a self-response rate of above 60 percent, compared to the nationwide response rate of above 53 percent.

Rural Nebraska has a lot at stake in the 2020 Census, according to several Extension professionals in western Nebraska who work extensively with rural communities. Counties who under-report their population run the risk of losing funding for the next decade.

The Census is more than a headcount, said Jason Weigle, Community Vitality Educator for Nebraska Extension based in Sidney. “The Census provides an important starting point for allocation of population-based Federal funding as well as allocation of Congressional members. It allows researchers and agencies to assist local governments in making decisions about how to allocate their resources. Not having an accurate number creates unintended consequences further down the road.”

The UNO Center for Public Affairs Research estimates that each Census enumeration brings approximately $20,000 per person per decade in Federal population-based funding into the state. A missed household of typical Nebraska size (2.5 persons) equates to a $50,000 loss.

“That’s additional funds that could have been used across the Panhandle for infrastructure, for hospitals and medical clinics, for agriculture programs, for schools, and for other areas where population-based funding is allocated.”

The Extension experts list several additional good reasons for responding: The Census is safe and confidential – personal information cannot be identified or used by ICE or law enforcement. And the Census is easy; it asks only 10 generic questions that take about 10 minutes once every 10 years.

The low response from rural Nebraska may be partly explained by bad coincidence, according to Extension Community Development Specialist Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel: “We had bad timing with the promotion of the Census and COVID-19 happening at the same time.” Regardless, the stakes are high for the future of rural Nebraska, she said: “Low responses rates will haunt our county budgets for 10 years – we can’t let that happen.”

Not only are rural counties slower to respond to the 2020 Census; particular groups within communities in rural Nebraska may have relatively lower rates of self-response to the Census, according to Jackie Guzman, Extension Educator based in Scottsbluff.

Nebraska Extension is collaborating with a local nonprofit in Scottsbluff, Empowering Families, to reach out to Latino and Native American communities in Scottsbluff to encourage them to participate. They are focusing on two areas in Scottsbluff that had a low response rate currently and in the 2010 census responses in comparison to others in the county. One is a predominately Latino and Native American neighborhood.

Guzman said anybody with questions can contact her (jguzman2@unl.edu308-220-8239) or Leo Sierra, 4-H Assistant (, 402-318-2387), and receive help in either English or Spanish.

Census operations have been pushed back 2-4 months, given the virus, so rural Nebraska residents still have time to improve the response rate.

Those who never received a paper survey, or who received one but threw it away or lost it, can go to Using the 12 digit ID from the mailings is recommended, but it can be completed based upon the household’s address as well.

People can also fill it out by phone (using their address) by calling 844-330-2020 (English) or 844-468-2020 (Spanish).

“The ten minutes it takes to complete the Census form will help everyone over the next 10 years,” Weigle said. “We have the time to change this trend – to get more people counted – but it’s going to take everyone chipping in to do it.”

Added Burkhart Kriesel: “This is something each of us can do now to help our communities, counties and region.  It may seem like a little thing to complete the Census but our collective actions do make a difference.”

Household response rates for Panhandle counties as of April 26 (total response, including online and mail):

Banner: 42.1

Box Butte: 58.0

Cheyenne: 53.3

Dawes: 55.5

Deuel: 44.9

Garden: 43.0

Kimball: 49.3

Morrill: 37.8

Scotts Bluff: 53.9

Sheridan: 44.7

Sioux: 31.6


Dave Ostdiek
Communications Specialist
Panhandle Research & Extension Center