Residents have begun receiving the U.S. Census Bureau's request for information receiving letters with a census identification number to answer questions about their households online. The paperwork states they will send a Census Bureau interviewer if residents don't fill out the online questionnaire. Credit: John Roark | The Idaho Post-Register via AP

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Fewer Mainers have responded to the 2020 census than the national average, mainly because the coronavirus outbreak has halted U.S. Census Bureau field operations in less populated areas of the state.

An accurate census count is important because it determines political representation and billions of dollars in federal funding to states for programs including Medicaid, highway projects, student loans and the food stamp program for the next 10 years, said Jeff Behler, director of the Census Bureau’s New York regional office, which includes Maine.

“Imagine if you have a school in your community of 100 kids,” he said. “If only 80 of them get counted in the 2020 census, for the next 10 years that school is going to receive 80 percent of the funding it deserves.”

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Maine received $4.1 billion in federal funding for the 55 largest federally funded programs in the 2016 fiscal year, the most recent data that the Census Bureau had. Maine relies heavily on federal aid, which represented 35.3 percent of the state’s general revenue in 2013, according to the Tax Foundation. That’s the tenth highest in the nation.

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But because only 71 percent of Mainers responded to the 2010 census, the state lost $1,642 in federal dollars guided by census data for each person who was not counted, according to a George Washington University report.

As of May 1, 44.8 percent of Mainers have responded to the census by mail, phone or the internet, according to the Census Bureau, which is being billed as the first one for which nearly all Americans will be invited to respond online, by phone or by mail. That compares to 54.6 percent nationally.

Piscataquis and Franklin counties had the lowest response rates in the state with 30 percent or less, while Cumberland, Sagadahoc and Androscoggin counties were the highest with 55 percent or more. Penobscot County was at 50 percent, and the Penobscot Nation had a 34.2 percent response rate.

Behler attributed the state’s overall low response to the virus outbreak. The bureau hand-delivers invitation packages, including information on filling out the census, to the 14 percent of Maine households with post office boxes, a task that began on March 15 and had to stop two days later.

Piscataquis County gets the most hand-delivered packages at 40 percent, followed by Franklin at 38 percent. The largely urban Cumberland County still has 5 percent of residents receiving those packages.

Beyond dropping off those packages, the bureau goes a step further to the most rural spots in the state. For example, in areas of Piscataquis County it will send workers to update addresses and take information in person.

“It can take two hours to get to a camp on foot,” Behler said. “We knock on the door and ask them questions. We have to knock on the doors of everyone who hasn’t responded.”

[Census Bureau to restart operations in rural areas of country]

The bureau expects to be able to once again start knocking on doors by mid-May. It already has asked for a 120-day extension until April 30, 2021, to submit responses to federal officials.

The bureau plans to hire 2,500 to 3,000 Mainers at $20 an hour, with flexible hours, to help carry out the census. It had 10,000 applicants earlier this year, but then the coronavirus hit. Behler said he isn’t sure how many would still be willing to go into the field to take information from citizens.

Behler said that despite the low response rate, the bureau isn’t panicking.

“This time around, we added the internet and telephone,” he said.

Watch: Nirav Shah talks about the impact of coronavirus on rural Maine

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Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...