2020 Census could provide big impact on small-but-growing Arkansas cities

WARD, Ark. — Now that 2020 has begun, the countdown to the count is on.

Census Day is just 90 days away.

Most of the conversations about the Census concern big cities, where homeless and immigrant populations are frequently under-counted.

But in rural Lonoke County, getting the numbers right could small towns on a new course.

“Oh, absolutely, top priority,” Mayor Charles Gastineau of Ward said Wednesday, “because it’ll affect our population and our turn-back funds for the next 10 years.”

Gastineau said Ward started preparing for this year’s Census back in 2017, before he was elected. He worked for the city at the time and led the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) operation. Staff members spent 45 minutes adjusting the U.S. Government’s maps.

“We were able to add about 700 houses,” he mentioned. “If you do the math, at 2.5 people per house, that’s a pretty good population shift.”

From 4,067 people in 2010, Gastineau believes Ward’s population could reach 6,000 by the time this year’s count is completed. According to Metroplan, Ward is the second fastest-growing city in the Little Rock metro area, which would mean it will receive a bigger share of the state and federal funds that are so crucial to most cities’ budgets.

“We have been–at every single city council meeting, at every planning commission meeting, and every chance I get something to say—we talk about the census coming 1 April,” Gastineau said.

Keeping an accurate score allows the city to apply for grants more effectively, like one that was recently approved to help build a new baseball/softball field, a new all-inclusive playground, and a new, ADA-compliant concession stand at the city’s sports complex.

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Gastineau said Arkansas ranked 38th during the 2010 Census with just 68 percent of households mailing back their form. He hopes for 100 percent this time around but realizes that will not happen. “There is a lot of folks who just don’t like government at all, period,” he explained. “They don’t want the government knowing anything about them. The government does know a lot about you already. We know this.”

Ward residents did not want to speak on the record about the Census, but Gastineau hopes they will tell the government who they are when the time comes.

“That’s the biggest thing: this is not affecting us just right now. This affects every city for the next decade,” he said.

Ward will set up a computer lab in its city hall on April 1 to help people take the Census. Gastineau said the assistance could help someone who struggles to answer the questions as well as someone who does not want a census-taker knocking at their door. He also plans to enlist the aid of every church to inform their congregations and will use social media to remind residents about the Census’ importance.

“This is vitally important,” he stated, “not only for Ward—Lonoke County, the State of Arkansas, and the nation as a whole.”