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HomeNewsLocal newsCensus Data for Territories Lags Behind Rest of the Nation

Census Data for Territories Lags Behind Rest of the Nation

Census taker Shyla Marshall-Almestica counts residents in Campo Rico. (Photo courtesy Karen D. Williams)

Those eager to know whether – and how much – the population of the U.S. Virgin Islands has decreased in the past decade are going to have to wait a while to find out. Although the U.S. Census Bureau recently released initial population data from the 2020 census for all states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, figures for the smaller territories aren’t expected for several more months.

The bureau’s website has a notice reading, “The results for the U.S. Island Areas will also be provided in a separate release at a later date.”

That “later date” has not been scheduled, but Frank Mills, director of the Eastern Caribbean Center at the University of the Virgin Islands and coordinator of census operations in the Virgin Islands, said Friday that he has been told by federal officials that it will likely be late summer.

The V.I., Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas have long been treated a little differently by the U.S. Census Bureau.

They are required to use a version of the “long-form” questionnaire – a lengthy questionnaire designed to gather information covering a myriad of topics including income and education levels, type of residence, length of time in the territory and health insurance status.

The bureau gets that sort of information for stateside jurisdictions with something called the American Community Survey, which is sent to a statistically relevant number of citizens on an ongoing basis, rather than gathering it from every individual once every 10 years as is done in the smaller territories.

UVI Vice Provost Frank Mills. (Photo from UVI website)
UVI Vice Provost Frank Mills (Photo from UVI website)

Mills, who has coordinated the Virgin Islands decennial count for several decades, said he is still trying to get the territory included in the American Community Survey, so V.I. residents can take the same simpler questionnaire their stateside counterparts take. The sticking point is the lack of a street address system in the territory similar to common systems on the mainland. The bureau insists it is necessary for distributing the American Community Survey.

“We’re working with the Lieutenant Governor’s Office on [standardizing] street addresses,” Mills said.

Mills had advocated for the project at the time of the 2010 census, and the V.I. government, through the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, began the work, but it is still incomplete.

Meanwhile, data collected in the Virgin Islands, as well as that from other small U.S. territories, is handled separately from that of the 50 states. The territories don’t even send their survey results directly to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mills said. Instead, the information goes first to a processing center in Indiana.

Per the bureau, the total population of the U.S. as recorded in the 2020 census is 331,449,281.

But if the territories haven’t been counted yet, are they somehow included in the total?

“No, we’re not,” Mills said.

Nor, he said in response to follow-up questions, is the total revised to add the territorial figures once they are available. The two sets of figures remain separate.

“They’re never combined. Not to my knowledge,” Mills said.

Such oversight may be linked to practical political considerations. Population figures for the states are used to determine congressional representation, and census results typically prompt redistricting moves. There is pressure to get that information formalized. Since the territories don’t have voting representation in Congress, they aren’t in that mix.

The Census 2020 logo is on the front of both the census taker's yellow vest and blue shirt. (Submitted photo)
Census for the 2020 national count wore distinctive royal blue and yellow garb to be easily identified. (Submitted photo)

The V.I. numbers are extremely important in other ways, however. They are used to set local policies and priorities and are crucial in determining federal funding for the territory across the spectrum of federal grants and programs, affecting almost every aspect of life from health, housing and education to conservation efforts and arts and recreation initiatives.

The “first results” for the nation show that its growth rate is slowing. In the 1990s, the U.S. population was growing at a rate of 13.2 percent. In the last decade, the growth rate was only 7.4 percent.

That is the second-lowest population growth rate for the nation in history. Only during the Great Depression was it slightly lower; the rate between 1930 and 1940 was 7.3 percent. Three states – West Virginia, Illinois and Mississippi – actually lost population between 2010 and 2020.

The islands may be in step with the general drift. There is considerable indication that the Virgin Islands is continuing a trend of population decline that was documented in the 2010 census.

According to the 2000 census, the V.I. population was 108,612. In 2010, the population was 106,405, which represented a decline of almost 2 percent.

Since then, the islands have experienced events that resulted in what, anecdotally, appeared to be a significant exodus of residents – notably the closure of the Hess Oil Virgin Islands Refinery in 2012 and the devastation left by two category 5 hurricanes in 2017.

While some who left post-hurricane later returned, and some of the Hess workers who departed may have been replaced by workers for its smaller successor, Limetree Bay Refinery, many observers expect the 2020 census numbers to document an overall decline.

Public school enrollment is another indicator of a downward turn. In the 2010-2011 school year, 15,747 students were enrolled in public schools. In the 2016-2017 school year, the number dropped to 13,194.

The national census has been conducted every 10 years since the late 18th century.

The 2020 census suffered delays across the country because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Virgin Islands, fieldwork was originally scheduled to end in September 2020, but it was the end of November when the territory wrapped up its work and submitted its paperwork. Nationally, work was so backed up that a congressionally mandated deadline of Dec. 31, 2020, for the submission of counts was extended to April 30, 2021.

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