Wrangell questions population loss reported by US Census

Wrangell seen from Mt. Dewey. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Official U.S. Census data reports Wrangell lost a tenth of its population — 242 people — over the last decade.

Wrangell’s economic development director Carol Rushmore says she was shocked when the borough received the 2020 figures.

“It doesn’t make sense when you look at our housing situation and other factors within the town,” Rushmore says. “We just don’t believe that there was that much of a drop.”

The Census Bureau’s own 2019 Wrangell population estimate showed about a 10% increase in the number of people living in the borough. The state department of labor’s population projections, published in April of last year, also show Wrangell’s population staying about the same as the community’s 2010 count.

Rushmore says she thinks the count could be artificially low for two main reasons. One is the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed the census and forced reductions to in-person survey work. The other reason is the census’ reliance on its own online mapping of residences around the country.

“Everything is so dependent on their digital mapping these days through the census, with addressing and where the housing is,” Rushmore says. “Of course, our addressing within town is terrible. There’s duplicate numbers, there are houses without addressing. There are people who use their own addresses at times.”

But she also admits that some blame could lie on Wrangell’s low self-response rate, which was less than other Alaska communities, including Anchorage, Juneau, Ketchikan and Petersburg. Just under 42% of Wrangell residents responded by phone, mail, or online to the census questionnaires. Census workers who tried to reach out to the non-responsive people might not have been able to verify the number of individuals living in a household, she says.

Even so, a low census count is concerning to the community because state and federal funding opportunities often take population into account. As does redistricting, which helps apportion a community’s political weight in state elections.

Rushmore says Wrangell’s administration is still looking into its options. The federal Census Bureau has a program called Count Question Resolution, where governments can appeal their census counts, but the data requirements are strict.

Rushmore says she doesn’t know if the Wrangell will have the right numbers to appeal.

“What we will be looking at to make sure we want to go through with the count [appeal] is from the PFD registrations, the voter registrations, the utility bills, the number of housings that we have, I mean all the data that we might have available to make sure it does show there should be an increase, not a drop, or at least [stayed] flat,” Rushmore says.

Rushmore also adds she’s in contact with the Haines Borough government, which the census shows lost more than 15% of its population in the last decade. Its response rate was around 34% — also well below the state average.

KSTK - Wrangell

KSTK is our partner station in Wrangell. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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