COLUMN: Our strength in numbers

By EMILY SPARACINO / Staff Writer

News stories in 2020 bear the battle scars of the COVID-19 pandemic, an unwelcome addition to our lives that is still sweeping through our communities via the Delta variant. If you were like me last year, you were surprised when you saw a headline not related to the virus first thing on any given day.

But another topic I saw in my news feed regularly was the 2020 Census, a large undertaking under normal circumstances. Add in a global pandemic, and the push for participation came with extended self-response deadlines and social distancing requirements for census takers.

When I heard local officials talk about the Census and the importance of everyone responding, they often mentioned the possibility of Alabama losing congressional representatives if the state’s response rate were too low to reflect its true population count. That could have had a domino effect on other funding for programs related to health care, schools and infrastructure, to name a few. The thought of losing such crucial funding at a time when many people were already coping with sickness and financial difficulties was unthinkable.

Under the weight of COVID-19, and with all of life’s daily obligations, the Census seemed like one more task to tackle, one more thing to remember. I will admit that the reminder I received in the mail about participating sat on my kitchen table for several weeks before I took a few minutes one day to complete the form online. But when I considered the consequences of letting it fall through the cracks, taking about 10 minutes to fill out a form and submit it with the click of a button seemed almost too easy.

Shelby County should be proud; we came in first place of Alabama’s 67 counties with a 78-percent response rate as of the final deadline in mid-October. We also led the state in the self-response gathering phase. And many cities in the county ended with a completion rate greater than 80 percent.

We often hear Shelby County described as one of the fastest-growing counties in the state—and, spoiler alert, it still is—but nothing drives home this point like seeing the growth in numbers. From 2010 to 2020, the county welcomed 27,939 more residents, bringing its population to 223,024. Shelby County is now the seventh-largest county in the state.

When it comes to individual cities, Calera and Chelsea saw two of the biggest percentage changes in the state. Behind them, Helena, Hoover, Alabaster, Pelham and Montevallo also saw increases. Chelsea tied for the second-largest percentage growth with a 47-percent increase over the last 10 years due to its population growing from 10,183 to 14,982. Calera’s population grew from 11,620 to 16,494, representing a percentage increase of 42.

So, why focus on these numbers? Why care so much about the Census? Each new wave of Census data determines the path for our county and state for at least the next decade, if not longer. These numbers factor into the education our children receive, the health of our local economy, the quality of life we enjoy. It’s more than just filling out a form; it’s fulfilling an active role in our future. Will any county or state ever achieve 100-percent participation? Probably not. But we in Shelby County can be proud of our efforts in the latest Census to ensure this remains one of the best places to live.