Updated: May 1
By Michael Wright
Nearly 99.7 percent of homes on Long Island have been logged by the 2020 Census, officials from the U.S. Census Bureau say, thanks largely to census enumerators being willing to work more hours knocking on doors this year.
Questions remain, however, about how the flight of New York City residents to the East End at the start of the coronavirus pandemic will affect the local population tally, or whether historically hard to enumerate minority communities will be captured accurately in the demographic data.
Local community leaders are continuing to beat the drum for residents to ensure that their household’s information is logged into the census data, either through one of the self-response outlets or by answering doors when census workers knock.
Even before a federal judge ruled last week that the Trump Administration could not end the counting effort early, the surveying of homes on Long Island had been nearing completion, according to the Census Bureau’s director for New York state, Jeff Behler.
“We were able to find and hire plenty of people, and people stayed on board and they worked more than just part-time hours,” Mr. Behler said Monday. “A lot of them were willing to work 20-30-40 hours per week, rather than just 5-10-15. That allowed us to knock on a lot of doors and get cases done a lot quicker than we had expected.”
The count has also been helped by high “self-response” rates in some parts of the region, which leaves fewer doors for census enumerators — as the civilian workers hired by the Census Bureau every 10 years are known — to knock on.
In Suffolk County as a whole, the self response rate as of this week was 68.2 percent. That rate is higher than the self-response rate was in 2010.
On the South Fork, however, the self-response rate has lagged well behind the rest of the county. That is not entirely unusual for a resort community with many second homes, but the stubbornly low numbers for the two South Fork towns have frustrated and worried those who have been laboring to boost participation in the local community.
In Southampton Town, the self-response rate is currently at just 41.6 percent, and in East Hampton it is only 35.1 percent, compared to 66.7 percent in 2010, according to data on Census.org.
In some other Suffolk towns, self-response rates have exceeded 90 percent.
More second-home owners, which are thought to have grown substantially since 2010, could account for some of the reduced number of self-responses. Also, the pandemic forced the cancellation of many public events that had been designed to spur people unaware of the self-response portion of the census to mail back the printed questionnaires or log their data online.
The lag locally should be made up by the phone surveys conducted earlier in the year and the door-to-door visits by enumerators that are continuing this week.
If a home has not been logged through one of the self-response methods — mailed surveys were sent in the spring that also provided a code for using an online portal — census enumerators will make up to six visits to a residence in an attempt to contact the homeowner directly.
After six failed attempts, they will turn to what the bureau calls a proxy — typically a neighbor — for whatever information they can offer about the inhabitants of a given home.
And this year, of course, more people are going to be at homes on the South Fork.
There has been speculation about whether the influx of typically part-time residents since the start of the pandemic will mean that the census will reflect a local population explosion, or whether the surveys’ specificity will still reflect the previously part-time occupancy nature of the bulk of the East End’s residences. If formerly part-time second home owners who have moved east because of the pandemic respond truthfully, the numbers should still reflect the pre-COVID community.
“It’s truly up to the respondent,” Mr. Behler said. “The guidance is, where did you usually live or stay as of April 1, 2020. It’s not where you’re at when you are filling out [the questionnaire] but where you considered your usual residence as of April 1. So, people who lived in the city and maybe left in mid-March, their usual place of residence would have been that city apartment, not that second home that they moved to.”
Additionally, once the census work is complete, Census Bureau staff will begin reviewing the data for redundancies to ensure that each person is counted only once. If someone who owns two homes filled out the survey at one residence, for instance, and then was met by a census worker at the other later in the year, the “un-duplication” process should catch the double-count and allow the bureau to determine which data should be logged where.
The extra time afforded by the court ruling will allow census workers to continue follow-up visits to homes not yet logged or for seeking additional information on self-responses that were incomplete. It will also allow more time for self-responses.
Community leaders that have been trying to boost the accuracy of census data regarding the East End community say that they will be working to add more local households to the tally right up to the last minute.
Minority groups, in particular, are known to be historically vulnerable to being under-represented in the census data for a variety of reasons, and advocates for minority and immigrant communities fear that trend will continue in 2020, despite a broad effort to boost participation, partly because of the pandemic and partly because of steps taken by the Trump Administration to suppress the tallying of immigrant populations.
Dyani Brown, a Shinnecock Nation member who was one of the coordinators of the census effort, says that she has seen evidence already that the complications of gathering census data on the Native American territory in Southampton has skewed data — data that is critical to securing federal aid for tribal programs.
Because the Shinnecock Territory is communally owned by all of the tribe’s members and has no official property line maps like towns and counties maintain, homes rarely have fixed addresses. Some streets are only informally named and house numbers can be assigned arbitrarily by the homeowners. These vagaries have already resulted in census questionnaires
There is also distrust among some tribe members of census workers they do not know. Because of that, two Shinnecocks were recruited to do the enumerating on the territory. But they were also sent to other areas to do surveys, rather than focusing only on the tribal territory, Ms. Brown said.
“There are so many factors that go into counting us that I don’t really think it will be accurate,” Ms. Brown said. “The fear is of being under-counted yet again, which manifests itself in underfunding of programs. And COVID emphasized what a lot of the needs here are: communication, health care and people living under the poverty level.”
Because of the technical complications, Ms. Brown said that the Census Bureau should allow designated tribal officials to act as proxies for all of their members in 2030 — logging data about the number of households and their makeup as a whole — a process that is used by some other tribes.
Distrust or fear of census workers can also lead to difficulties in counting those from the immigrant community and White House attempts to shorten the counting window — widely seen as an effort to constrain participation by Democratic-leaning minorities — and limit the tallying of immigrant populations have dampened participation, those working on mustering the count say.
“I think the whole effort was hampered before it even began with the Trump Administration trying to exclude undocumented people from the apportionment process, and then trying to rush the process,” said Sandra Dunn, associate director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, a Latino community advocacy group. “All of those things create confusion in the community and make people think, ‘Why bother?’ That’s what we’ve been up against.”
Last week, OLA and several other community advocacy groups held a “Census Caravan,” the latest in a series of public events and social media campaigns intended to raise awareness of the census and the looming deadline — not just among immigrants.
Ms. Dunn said she has been buoyed by some tales from residents she spoke to who said they have talked with enumerators who visited or filled out their self-response questionnaires and that she hopeful that the ongoing efforts are continuing to gradually add to the count. But she said she can’t shake the worry that all of the efforts made will somehow be undone behind the scenes.
“This time, it’s going to be very hard to know how much we can trust the data we get back from the census,” she said. “I am trying to remain optimistic.”