I met a friend the other day at Perfect Cup Café on the square in my hometown, Magnolia, Arkansas. Over a warm breakfast and coffee, we discussed our community’s new plan to improve quality of living and employment opportunities. As our discussion grew more enthusiastic — we could put in a new bowling alley and get that movie theater residents want so bad, and if we play our cards right, there is nothing to stop us from increasing access to capital from local entrepreneurs — my mind kept going back to the upcoming census. If we could not get everyone counted, all that my friend and I hoped for with our community’s new plan would be for naught. And a similar story was about to play out in rural communities like Magnolia across the state.

That is why I helped start and now chair Magnolia’s Local Complete Count Committee. From the rippling Columbia Lake to Southern Arkansas University’s growing student body, there’s really limitless potential in my community. An accurate and representative census is one step we can take toward seizing the reigns of Magnolia’s educational and economic future. Like other rural communities throughout Arkansas, an undercount will hurt us and impede progress toward realizing our vision of a thriving and prosperous future.

In the past 30 years since I moved back to my hometown from Little Rock, I have seen so many positive changes that federal, state, and corporate funding have made possible and 2020 U.S. Census data can help us continue to build on. All levels of government and employers rely on census data to plan, make decisions, and allocate resources. We have a busy arts schedule through the Magnolia Arts Council and Magnolia High School’s newly constructed thousand-seat auditorium. Locals enjoy watching and playing sports thanks to the amenities available at Southern Arkansas University and our high school. Initiatives like the Delta I-Fund and the university’s gaming program provide a wealth of support to entrepreneurs young and old. As for employment opportunities, an old Firestone building is continuing to produce aviation fuel bladders, creating 300 jobs. An old laminated beam plant has been remodeled by Cross Laminated Timber Company to employ over 80 people.

Much of Magnolia’s growth and improvement have been made possible because we receive resources to match our community’s needs and aspirations thanks to census numbers. Our population has remained between 11,000 and 12,000 people for three decades, and so we have been able to build and maintain the same quality of life for that many residents because census data have helped us plan and secure adequate funding. But what would happen if we have grown more than expected since the 2010 U.S. Census? As a state, Arkansas stands to lose nearly $1 billion for every one percent undercount in the census next year. So take, for example, the $175,000 Magnolia receives from the Arkansas state government each year for general operations. If we undercount our population and show a loss, our funding would decrease; that would mean we would have to cut city services. If we undercount and our population has grown, that means we will struggle to serve and protect our families and friends. It’s simple economics: If our community has more people than we have the resources to support, we will struggle and perhaps even fail to provide the services and infrastructure Magnolia residents deserve. 

I must also mention that this funding is our federal tax-payer dollars being reinvested into our community. To avoid failing residents, policymakers may need to increase taxes in Columbia County to counter an undercount on the census and maintain the quality of life in our community. Increased local taxes would only hurt residents already struggling to make ends meet as well as make Columbia County a less appealing place to live.

My friend and I continued this discussion as we left Perfect Cup Café and strolled out across the square. We passed the “Movie Magic” mural signed by Charlton Heston near the depiction of him as Moses in “The Ten Commandments.” I looked to my friend, smiled, and said, “We can do this. We can Get Out the Count. We have to so our plan for Magnolia’s future can work.” 

Steve Nipper is the chair of Magnolia’s Complete Count Committee. Active in his community, he also serves as a member of the city council and the Magnolia Arts Center board, and he is vice president of the Magnolia Public School Foundation.