A lot of money is riding on this year’s decennial census. The data is used in formulae to determine how much of $1.5 trillion in federal money flows to various communities, Numbers lower than the actual population means someone else gets the money.
The counting of people who do not volunteer their information has been immensely complicated by the ongoing pandemic. What was your primary residence on April 1? Because of the Covid 19 pandemic, some college students living locally had already returned temporarily to their families elsewhere. Other people had already fled New York City for their upstate second homes vowing not to return. Where did these folks tell the census-takers they lived on April 1? In a time of pandemic-induced mobility, would one’s replies to the earnest door-to-door census-taker in September be the same as they would have been if one emailed your form to the census in April?
Counting every person in the United States is a constitutional mandate, the numbers being used to apportion congressional representatives. This year, residents of this country — including but not limited to citizens — for the first time can record their responses online. The deadline for completing the census is September 30. There’s still two weeks left to push the local numbers higher.
Mobilizing trusted voices
Jeff T. Behler, director of the New York census regional office of the census, oversees counting in New York State, New Jersey, New England, and Puerto Rico.
The ideal situation is when people respond on their own, Behler said. In Ulster County, responses from 60 percent of households had been received by last week. The final response rate in the county during the 2010 census was 57.4 percent. Efforts by the “trusted voices” of local volunteers and government workers has “clearly made a difference,” Behler said.
The national response rate is 65.5 percent, the state response rate is 62 percent, so the response rate for Ulster County is below the state level by two percent, according to Jennifer Clark, chair of the Ulster County complete count effort. In terms of our region at this point in time, Ulster County is doing better than some neighboring counties (Sullivan County is at 35.1 percent, Delaware County 41.4 percent, Greene County 43.2 percent, and Columbia County at 52.1 percent). However, Ulster lags behind Dutchess County’s 65.3 percent and Orange County at 65.2 percent. Though Ulster County’s response rate is already higher than it was for the 2010 census, a concerted effort could boost the numbers considerably in the next two weeks.
Over the course of the census, New York State’s count started and has remained below the national average and Ulster County had been consistently below the state average. “So we have been concerned,” said Maggie Veve, a New Paltz resident who’s been involved as a facilitator in this year’s local census drive.
Veve said that the most important factor that was different this year was the most obvious: Covid 19. “People were really on survival mode,” she explained. “The massive interruption of normal patterns of organizing to educate and share information was clearly a factor. Communication among and between customary avenues disruption related to Covid and the demands of survival.”
Outreach efforts increase
Clark’s job is to coordinate the trusted voices that Behler has been praising. “We are taking several steps to increase participation. Given that people are more inclined to listen to others in their community, a large part of our effort has focused on working with local organizations and community leaders to help them get out the message to their constituents,” said Clark “For example, we are working with Rupco, Cornell Cooperative, Family of Woodstock, United Way, and Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley to reach their hard-to-count constituents.”
Outreach efforts with those organizations include activities such as contacting current and past customers to inform them about the census and providing assistance in filling it out; disseminating census materials throughout their networks; providing direct mailings; conducting outreach to Spanish-speaking communities through radio, television, print, and social media; and circulating newsletters to rural and agricultural communities. Citizen Action has used phone banks and text messaging to encourage participation. Multiple presentations (in person prior to the pandemic, and online since) have informed officials, local organizations, and community leaders about the importance of the census, and how they can help. Materials of all kinds have been distributed.
Census messaging has been incorporated into various county events. Recently representatives from the U.S. Census Bureau provide mobile assistance with completing the census questionnaire at a senior event hosted by the Ulster County Office of the Aging. A public service announcement about the census was made at the Ulster County movie nights at Tech City, and PSAs will be broadcast on local radio stations through the end of September.
Rounding up the
The number of uncounted people is unknown. The census tracks households, not people. How many individuals and families dwell in second homes or vacant buildings? The data workers work with the number of housing units, not the number of people.
There is a systematic process to get people in those households counted, as well as to follow up on incomplete responses received by mail or online.
Census workers will knock on every one of those non-responding doors during the counting period. Behler explained that the time when workers are out and about had been scheduled to run from May 13 to mid-July, a little over two months, and the rescheduled period was August 3 through September 30, slightly less than two months. Conducting the count is certainly more complicated this time around than it was in 2010. Workers must all wear masks, and are instructed to back up six feet after knocking on a door. Interviews can be conducted outside, to reduce risk. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control classifies talking to a census worker as low-risk.
Clark discussed the resistance to being counted in detail. “Looking at the various response maps, it seems that we have the most difficulty getting responses in the more sparsely populated areas of the county,” she said. “The low response rates in these areas is likely due to the fact that these are the locations where there are a high number of second homes. People do not realize that they are supposed to fill out a separate census questionnaire for their second home, and it is difficult for us to conduct educational outreach to people who are not here.”
Exacerbated by the Airbnb phenomenon and the purchases of residences in non-second-home areas by refugees from the New York City area, Ulster County is seeing an increase in its already substantial second-home ownership. Of the approximately 85,400 housing units in Ulster County (69 percent of them owner-occupied). Ulster County’s planning department estimates that between 10,000 and 15,000 are second homes.
The municipalities in Ulster County with the lowest initial response rates — Wawarsing with 47.1 percent, Shandaken with 31.9 percent, Denning with 28.8 percent, and Hardenburgh with 18 percent — are areas with a high proportion of second homes designated as “update leave” because the majority of housing units either do not have mail delivered to the physical location of the housing unit, or because mail delivery information for the housing units could not be verified. Instead, the census materials were hand-delivered to these areas by the Census Bureau workers, and those deliveries were delayed due to the pandemic. The delay in getting the materials (along with the fact that they are getting contacted less frequently) may have led to a decrease in participation, Clark said.
County planners say that close to half the current property-tax bills in the Town of Shandaken, for instance, are mailed to out-of-town addresses. Who will occupy these housing units in the 2020s? At a meeting of Woodstock’s town board last week, police chief Clayton Keefe noted the marked increase in daily traffic on the local roads in that town since the pandemic began. His conjecture was that New York metropolitan-area owners of Woodstock properties were spending more of their time here.
The low count of self-reporting in the City of Kingston, 60.9 percent as of September 8 as compared to 72.7 percent in the 2010 census, is a particular concern to the nose-counters. As a small city, Kingston remains eligible annually for Community Development Block Grants (CBDG) only if it maintains a sufficient population, as measured by the decennial census. “Important funding … flows through Ulster County and Community Development Block Grant[s] in support of programs for our community and those in need such as our library, the Everett Hodge Community Center, the Boys and Girls Club of Kingston, the Center for Creative Education, the YMCA and others,” explained Rebecca Martin of Kingston Citizens, a census supporter. “What might not be well known is that every person in our community that takes the census helps to provide a formula that equates to thousands of dollars per person and that is allocated to support these important initiatives and programs.”
As an “entitlement community” in 2020, Kingston received $748,668 in CBDG funding from the federal government.
“Other reasons that people may not respond to the census are concerns about safety and confidentiality. Demographics show that immigrants are among the hard-to-count populations,” explained Clark. “Although the census is supposed to count everyone, whether they have come to this country legally or not, I would not be surprised if immigrants who are not here legally are wary of providing their information to the government, particularly given the controversy over the citizenship question. To combat this concern, our outreach efforts have included education on the confidentiality accorded to census data.”
Census data is confidential under federal law, and the penalty for wrongful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment for up to five years, or both. Law-enforcement agencies (including the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations) are forbidden to have access to this data and cannot even obtain it with a subpoena. President Donald Trump’s extensive use of executive orders has stirred concerns about these legal protections.
By contrast, failing to respond to the census carries a $100 fine, and “enforcement of that fine would be difficult,” said Clark. “The fine is a product of federal law, and so it would be within their jurisdiction to enforce it, not the county or the state. For the federal government to enforce the fine they would have to know who was at each address that received the census form.” Given the large number of people who do not respond to the census, it is unlikely there are sufficient resources available for enforcement to hold such hearings.”
Response rate updated daily
Not everyone is comfortable transmitting their data through the Internet. The push to inform everyone about how to respond online may have obscured the fact that people can also respond to the census by phone (call 844-330-2020), or by returning the paper questionnaire that was delivered to their homes.
If no one is home or willing to open the door to talk, a sticky note is left on the outside with information about responding online at 2020census.gov, as well as a phone number to call to speak to a person. The note also includes a promise that a census worker will return. Behler said that the workers out of the Pawling office — which covers Ulster County — had completed 78.6 percent of that door-knocking as of last week. Some of that work is focused on responses that were incomplete or unclear, Behler said.
If someone inside refuses to open the door, the census worker will let them know about the note, and encourage them to complete the count online or over the phone. Six attempts are made to find out how many people are living in any given household.
Once 85 to 90 percent of households are counted, the work is shifted into closeout mode, Behler said. The best enumerators in the office are sent out to give one last try at finding out what’s going on inside those mystery buildings, and then workers will seek out a proxy: someone living nearby who can furnish information about the number of people in the unit, at the very least, but also details about number of families and genders and approximate ages of individuals if possible.
The very last step is the apply a statistical method called imputation to determine how many people are in a given housing unit based on who is living in the surrounding area. It’s not an ideal solution. It won’t be accurate, for example, if multiple families are living in a single-family home, It’s resorted to in less than one percent of cases. One way or another, “we will get a response,” Behler said.
Behler said that an inaccurate count is “a huge concern.” It’s not only that hundreds of billions of dollars of government funding is allocated based on formulae drawing on census data, impacting everything from hospital beds, childcare, and education to roads, bridges, and even the number of bus stops in a community. The census provides the society data about itself that it otherwise wouldn’t have. All kinds of organizations use census data to make their decisions.
“We care about our pocketbooks,” said Maggie Veve, “and in a nutshell we care about our community and want to optimize the positive effects of a complete count.”
“The best way to support healthcare is to fill out the census,” Behler said.
Data on response rates are updated daily by 3 p.m. online, according to Clark. The response rate is the percentage of people counted by a self-report directly to the census plus those counted by enumerators sent out to count people. While visiting the site, readers are urged to respond if they haven’t already, and then to encourage their neighbors to do the same. New York’s response rate at the end of last week was 88.8 percent. The national average was 89.4 percent.
Though he’d like a robust last-minute surge in the local count, Ulster County planning director Dennis Doyle was not unhappy with the results. Ulster County had managed to increase its self-response rate over the 2010 census, he said. Despite the confusion about how people identified where they lived, the census experience during the pandemic had been positive. Having good partners, especially among the clergy, had helped overcome problems with proper counts of minorities, particularly Latinx.