Census undercount of overseas troops could cost base towns

Tacoma News TribuneFebruary 7, 2011 

Nearly two-thirds of the soldiers at Washington state's Joint Base Lewis-McChord were deployed overseas last year during the U.S. Census count and they won't necessarily show up on the population rolls in the cities where they lived before they left.

That could cost Lewis-McChord's neighboring cities such as Lakewood and DuPont annual federal allocations for roads, social services and other resources — a loss of about $1,400 for each person, each year.

Political leaders in other states last year complained that not counting soldiers as part of the populations at their military stations would shortchange cities that surround large bases such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Carson in Colorado.

Local communities fear an undercount of their military populations because the census tallies overseas soldiers in the states they designate for their homes, not where they were last stationed.

For instance, a young soldier who was born and raised in Mobile, Ala., trained at Lewis-McChord and then deployed to Iraq would likely be counted as a Mobile resident — even though he returned to Lewis-McChord after his deployment.

Deployments also have a ripple effect on the Census beyond the service members themselves. Often, military families leave communities around military installations during a soldier's overseas tour, meaning they wouldn't count in those communities, either.

It's not clear whether the undercount would be significant, or if it could be offset by deployed soldiers stationed around the country marking Washington state as their home of record.

"I think a lot of people had concerns that the largest deployment in JBLM's history happened to be during the Census," said Jeff Brewster, Lakewood's communications and government relations director.

Washington doesn't lose out entirely. Overseas military members count in the state's overall population, meaning they help determine how many congressional seats each state receives. Washington's population grew at 14.1 percent over the past decade — a clip that was so fast that it gained another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Overseas service members are something of a floating number in a state's population because they're not assigned to any specific political boundaries, such as congressional districts. They could skew the numbers for Washington's new House seat by loading more people into whichever district encompasses Lewis-McChord.

"The assumption has always been that when you represent a military district, you represent a lot more people," said George Behan, spokesman for Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair.

Behan said Dicks has been aware about flaws in the Census' methods for counting overseas soldiers, but Congress hasn't found a better method.

"We've always had that concern," he said. "The military has the home of record and that is logical because they move around a lot and they are not considered residents for some purposes.

"Obviously they and their families are there living, paying local taxes and using services, so it's a distinction that's somewhat unofficial," Behan said.

Read more of this story at TheNewsTribune.com

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