By Michael Wright
United States Census Bureau workers began going door-to-door on the South Fork last week as the nationwide population survey finally began the in-person phase of counting the populace, after months of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a truncated timeline and rates of “self response” thus far low on the East End and in many rural and resort communities around the state, census officials are hoping that the traditional front porch visits from census “enumerators” will quickly boost tallies with deadlines already looming.
Local organizers of minority populations are also scrambling to boost the response rates within certain sectors of the population that are historically under-counted after carefully formulated strategies for rallying communities were upended by the epidemic and social distancing protocols.
“Pre-COVID, we did a lot of presentations at the libraries and food pantries and announcements at church services and we had posters made to go up at businesses,” said Sandra Dunn of OLA Eastern Long Island, a Latino community advocacy organization that has partnered with the Census Bureau to drive census participation across the entire East End. “But with COVID and the unemployment and health concerns, this has not been at the top of a lot of people’s minds. It’s been a tremendous obstacle.”
As of this week, only 30 percent of homes in East Hampton Town and about 37 percent in Southampton Town have been tallied via the self-response program — which this year included an online option for the first time — leaving large numbers of homes on the list of addresses that must be visited by the boots on the ground, with now less than seven weeks before the September 30 deadline.
In the 2010 census, about 66 percent of local homes mailed the self-response documents back to the Census Bureau.
Federal law requires that all people living in the United States, regardless of nationality or immigration status, complete the census questionnaire and requires that the Census Bureau contact all American homes.
Along with apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures, census data is used to apportion billions in federal aid and grant recommendations on a broad array of social services from police departments and schools to hospitals, health care facilities and housing assistance programs.
The in-person portion of the census canvassing was supposed to start in May and conclude at the end of July. But because of the epidemic, the effort did not commence until late July in some parts of the country and until August 6 or later in most others.
The Census Bureau had originally set October 31 for the new deadline, allowing for about the same eight weeks as originally allotted for the in-person portion of the tally. But on August 3, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced that all tallies would end on September 30 instead, because the remaining three months of the year would be needed to compile all the data and deliver it to the White House by the end of the year, as required. Congress had been considering proposals that would have allowed the final counts to be delayed by as long as four months because of the disruptions of the epidemic, but — with accusations swirling about one of the country’s most sacred and important processes being hamstrung for political gain — Mr. Dillingham said the additional time was not necessary.
Census officials said, that in some respects, the epidemic and economic disruptions could have been expected to boost self-response participation in the census, because more people were home with time on their hands to fill out the mailed or online forms before the documents sent were mixed in with the junk mail.
But the self-response segment of the census has traditionally lagged in resort communities, where many homes may not be occupied by permanent residents — residents who should be filling out their census forms for the address they reside at the rest of the year — and in rural areas without home mail delivery.
Prior to 2020, the self-response program consisted only of paper questionnaires mailed to physical addresses, because the Census cannot send questionnaires to P.O. Boxes. Self-response forms were carried by enumerators when they began their door-to-door canvassing of those addresses that had not mailed back questionnaires, to be left if nobody answered the door. If the form was sent in, the enumerators would not have to make the second and third attempts to contact the residents of a home.
Census Bureau New York Regional Coordinator Jeff Behler said he expects that in that respect, the start of the door-to-door surveys will boost even the online self-response numbers. To start with, some P.O. Box holders will get their first copy of a self-response form, with the instructions for filing one’s information more immediately online, if an enumerator comes to their home and finds it unoccupied. Secondly, those who already have the forms will get a reminder, and a warning that the census will come knocking again.
“If we go and nobody answers the door, we leave a notice that we’ll be back in a few days — well, with the coronavirus some people may say to themselves, ‘I don’t want someone coming to my door,’ and they’ll go online and complete the form,” the census veteran surmised. “But we also hear from our partners that people are hesitant to fill out the forms. So the one thing we know we need to do is knock on doors.”
And knock on doors they will. The census, despite other hurdles placed before it, is well funded and is continuing to bring on and train additional enumerators to meet the new time constraints and, possibly, to be done before the deadline.
The New York region is “over-hiring,” Mr. Behler said, with an eye to having the full survey done in just six to seven weeks, rather than the eight allotted. Financial incentives are being offered to enumerator employees willing to work longer hours at canvassing.
Along with the door-to-door visits from enumerators, the census “Partners” program is also sending teams to community gathering spots to hold mobile questionnaire assistance sessions, at which census employees and community volunteers help people fill out the census documents if they haven’t done so via other avenues already.
The bureau and its partners have held several of the mobile questionnaire assistance, MQA, sessions at local churches, food pantries and community gatherings. There will be MQA staff at the Heart of the Hamptons food pantry at the Basilica of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary church this Friday, August 21, and at Cor-J Seafood in Hampton Bays — where the seemingly perpetual line to get in the door attracted the attention of census volunteers — on Saturday, August 22, from noon to 4 p.m.
Local officials in recent days have lamented the low self-response rates, which are tracked on a U.S. Census Bureau website, www.2020census.gov, because low response rates can handicap a region’s services and assistance from the federal government in a number of ways.
“I think we can work together to improve that really concerning statistic,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said last week. “It is so absolutely important that we get everybody in the community counted because it effects everything from our ability to secure grant funding to representation in congress.”
Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said that the town’s census committee has been promoting Census participation at the town’s food pantries, which have seen a spike in users since the epidemic started, an is in talks with Census officials about getting an MQA station set up at some local farmers markets in the final weeks of summer.
“It is critical that we get these numbers up,” Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni said this week in an appeal sent out by the town. “As a former high school social studies teacher, I know how important it is too make every person count. If we are not counted accurately, we could lose critical representation in our House of Representatives, in our State Legislature and it could even effect government funding. We know the pandemic has been hard on all of us, but taking the Census in the privacy of your own home takes just 10 minutes. Please do it today.”
The East End’s low numbers are still not the worst in the state. In several upstate towns, particularly tiny rural towns in the Adirondaks, response rates thus far stand below 20 percent. In others, including Smithtown on Long Island, response rates are nearing 80 percent of households already. Suffolk County’s overall self-response rate is about 66 percent. In rural Hamilton County — the least populous county in the state, with only an estimated 4,400 residents — the response rate thus far has been only 17 percent.
Beyond the overall low response rates, certain segments of the population also suffer historically from low levels of participation in the census and, therefore, undercounting that can hamstring services relied upon by the entire community.
The low response rates thus far have baffled some of those working hard to muster participation through the epidemic, where they say they’ve seen significant enthusiasm, volunteers say.
On the Shinnecock Nation’s territory in Southampton, the response rates shown by the census bureau’s self-response tracker is just 20 percent. Dyani Brown, who has led the tribe’s partnership effort with Census officials said that some 60 households filled out the questionnaire with her help during a tribal vote earlier this month. The tribe and Indigenous Suffolk Counts, an effort to drive participation by Native Americans, are employing a tactic that showed success in some Minnesota native tribes: they are holding two raffles for $500 cash cards and raffle tickets can be obtained only with a completed census form.
“It may just be my age group, but most of my friends and family have done the form online, so I feel like it has worked out well, “ said Yesenia Quichimbo, a volunteer for OLA Eastern Long Island. “Maybe it’s just older people who are waiting for the people to come to their door.”
Ms. Dunn, of OLA, said that her organization has focused on a major Spanish-language social media push through Facebook on the importance of participation and the confidentiality of the information collected, in the hope of overcoming reticence on the part of immigrant families that may have an undocumented person living in their household.
A question about citizenship that the Trump administration had tried to have included is not on the questionnaire and Latino community advocates have focused much of their efforts to drive up participation by immigrant households on ensuring Spanish-speaking residents that none of the information in the census response can be used for immigration law enforcement.
“The census is an entry point for civic participation for everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, or whether you can vote or not,” Ms. Dunn said. “This is a way for people to participate and be less marginalized in our culture.”