Nearly two-thirds of the soldiers at 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 South Sound cities where they lived before they left.
That could cost Lewis-McChord’s neighboring cities such as Lakewood and DuPont thousands of dollars a year in federal allocations for roads, social services and other resources – a loss of about $1,400 for each person, each year.
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 South Sound 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 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.
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.
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 like Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Carson in Colorado.
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue wrote a letter last year to the Commerce Department arguing that her state could lose $641.5 million over 10 years because tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines were deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti at the time of the count.
She wanted the Census to rank a service member’s last military installation as his home of record.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke replied in an April letter to Perdue that it was too late to change the criteria for the 2010 Census, but that the agency would consider adjusting its practices for the 2020 count.
Locke, a former Washington governor, wrote that the Census has followed the same method since 1990, when it chose to use the so-called home of record for a service member because it yielded the most accurate count. Service members move so frequently that the method Perdue favored was three times less accurate than the practice the Census adopted, Locke wrote.
The issue did not gain much traction in Washington State last year even though some 18,000 of the soldiers at Lewis-McChord were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during the Census.
City administrators in DuPont and Steilacoom said they were aware their military populations could be undercounted, but they weren’t sure how much.
Officials for Pierce County, where many military families live in unincorporated communities such as Graham and Spanaway, say the same thing.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646