Census Count Of Troops Riles Military Communities

The last time census envelopes hit mailboxes, America wasn't fighting two wars. Now, tens of thousands of troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Census Bureau will count deployed troops as part of the U.S.'s overseas population. That's not sitting well with military communities. Onslow County, N.C., is home to Camp Lejeune. The equivalent of 10 percent of its entire population is deployed, and it's fighting to make sure those deployed Marines count as residents. If not, the county could lose millions of dollars in federal funding.

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Keeping track of the U.S. troops is complicated, especially for the U.S. Census. States and counties with large military bases are concerned about how best to count all their deployed troops, people who would normally call those places home.

Catherine Welch, of member station WHQR, tells us how they're going about it in North Carolina.

CATHERINE WELCH: Highway 17 meanders along the North Carolina coast into Onslow County, home of the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base. How much federal funding a highway like this one gets is determined by population counts. So Onslow County Commissioner Bill Keller was shocked when he learned thousands of Marines deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan likely would not be included in the local census count.

Mr. BILL KELLER (Commissioner, Onslow County Board of Commissioners): It was very, very distressful - I mean, for everybody. We all said, my goodness, this is not right.

WELCH: Leafing through a red folder marked Census, Keller pulls out and reads a letter that North Carolina's congressional delegation sent to President Obama.

Mr. KELLER: (Reading) Dear Mr. President, we are writing to express our concern that the 2010 census will jeopardize North Carolina's ability to be fairly counted.

WELCH: The letter is a bit technical, about how deployed troops are tabulated. But basically, if Daddy is fighting in Afghanistan and Mommy and Junior are home, then Mommy and Junior are counted where they live, while Daddy is counted in the place where he enlisted or re-enlisted - even if Daddy hasn't lived there for years.

Military communities across the nation are firing off similar letters to force a change to how the nearly 270,000 deployed troops are counted. Just outside Fort Campbell in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Chamber President Carter Hendricks is frustrated.

Mr. CARTER HENDRICKS (President, Hopkinsville-Christian County Chamber of Commerce): We are the ones who are on the front lines of supporting soldiers and their families. And yet, when it comes time to get an accurate census count, we're being penalized.

Ms. ADRIENNE ONETO (Chief, Health Surveys Branch Bureau of the Census, Demographic Surveys Division): This is not a new approach.

WELCH: That's the Census Bureau's Adrienne Oneto.

Ms. ONETO: This is an approach that was used in 1970. It was again used in 1990.

WELCH: And again in 2000, which was pre-9/11 and before tens of thousands of troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Federal funding for Medicaid, Head Start and low-income housing hinge on population counts. Oneto understands those dollars are important, but a population shift in one state or another can rearrange some of the 435 seats in the U.S. House.

Ms. ONETO: In 1990, Massachusetts lost a seat to the state of Washington. In 2000, North Carolina edged Utah for the 435th seat.

WELCH: Serious business. So Oneto says changing everything just to placate some military communities isn't going to happen. But for the next count, in 2020, the Defense Department wants to tweak the process.

Mary Dixon heads the department that keeps tabs on where the troops are, and she's ready to chat with the Census Bureau.

Ms. MARY DIXON (Director, Defense Manpower Data Center, Department of Defense): To talk about whether there's a possibility that we could use the individual's last residence mailing address in the United States.

WELCH: Counting troops where they get their mail could lead to a more accurate snapshot. But Dixon reminds military communities that if this were a simple problem, it would have been resolved a long time ago.

For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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