Officials Rattled Over Census Response Rate
Updated: May 1, 2022
By Anabel Sosa
Local officials and community advocates are asking residents of East Hampton Town to complete their census forms. Only 29.8 percent of East Hampton households had filled out their forms as of July 24, according to the Census Hard to Count 2020 data system, which was created by City University of New York to measure self-response rates across the country.
New York State as a whole is faring relatively well, with a 58.6 percent response rate — four percentage points below the national average. But pockets of the state with the fewest responses include New York City and Suffolk County. Here, the lowest response rate so far this year is in the hamlet of Amagansett, with only a 17 percent return rate.
In the 2010 census, East Hampton Town had a 66.7 percent self-response rate, a shade over the national average of 66.5 percent.
Data collected by the census are used to measure the population of the United States. The questionnaire, said to take under 10 minutes to complete, asks basic questions about the number of people living in a household, the type of housing (owned, rented, single-family, etc.), and the sex, age, race, and ethnicity of the residents.
The results help determine how much federal funding will be allocated to a community for key services, including education, housing, health care, parks, Medicaid, and emergency preparedness. It also determines the number of congressional seats awarded to a state. New York now has 27 seats in the House of Representatives. With an undercount, the state could lose two of those seats, not to mention a lot of federal money.
The massive undercount in the city so far can be attributed to several factors, said Julie Menin, director of the New York City Office of the Census. One, of course, is the pandemic.
Following an exodus in March from the city to their second homes, many New Yorkers may not have received their census forms, which are delivered to primary addresses. In East Hampton, meanwhile, a lot of residents responded to the sudden demand for housing by renting out their homes and finding other accommodations; they too might not have received their forms.
"The state is at risk of losing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars," Ms. Menin said by phone. The "bottom line," she said, is "if people have left town, they still need to help the city in its greatest time of need. Post-Covid New York City needs its funding more than ever. To not take 10 minutes to fill it out is really hurting the state."
Many people may not know that the census form can be submitted in other ways besides direct mail. It can also be filled out online at mycensus2020.gov, or by telephone via a toll-free number, 1-800-991-2520 in New York.
Despite the current low rate of response, Jeff Behler, regional director of the Census Bureau, is optimistic. "The 2020 Census is a success so far," he said. "The introduction of the internet and telephone is our saving grace, especially in the age of Covid. I'm amazed where we are, given that New York was the epicenter at the time in which the census began."
He pointed out that although forms are sent to every listed household, they are not sent to post office boxes, which may change owners from one year to the next and are not tied to a specific address. This poses a problem for hamlets like Amagansett, for example, where residents must pick up their mail at the post office.
Communities of color and immigrant populations are among the most difficult to count, Mr. Behler said, and the most at risk of being undercounted. In New York, approximately 19 percent of the Latinx population is likely to be unaccounted for this year, according to the Census Bureau.
In July 2019, the Census Bureau estimated the year-round population of East Hampton at 22,047. Some 24.6 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program, a database that produces annual estimates of the population based on the most recent decennial census.
Since July 21, when President Trump signed an executive order aimed at excluding undocumented individuals from the census numbers, community leaders and advocates have become even more fearful that participation among immigrant communities will plummet. Mr. Behler stressed, however, that "the law that allows us to collect the census also protects it. We can never release data at any time for any reason."
Sandra Dunn, associate director of Organizacion Latino-America of Eastern Long Island, is confident that the Latinx community in East Hampton will complete their census forms by the deadline. "We've been hearing from Latinos who were here during the last census, and they said they plan to fill it out again," she said. "We didn't get a lot of apprehensive people."
Since the onset of Covid-19, OLA has worked tirelessly, Ms. Dunn said, to educate the Spanish-speaking community on the importance of completing the census, with informational videos, posters, and fliers for distribution throughout the town at delis, supermarkets, and food pantries.
"We need every person here to be counted," said Tom Ruhle, director of housing for East Hampton Town. "If the poor are undercounted, it hurts our programs, because it reinforces the perception that the only people who live in the Hamptons are wealthy people and that there's no evidence for the need for programs."
This week, enumerators are slated to begin knocking on the doors of households not yet heard from to conduct nonresponse follow-ups. These door-to-door workers, who are expected to record up to 40 percent of the total count, are the last line of defense for a complete count. They will be wearing protective gear and standing at a safe distance when interviewing residents.
The Census Bureau announced in a statement on Monday that the deadline for field data collection and self-response rates has been moved up to Sept. 30, a month earlier than the originally proposed Oct. 31 date.
"I am confident we will get 100 percent as far as some type of response," Mr. Behler said. In the case that there is no one in a household willing to provide information, or when no one is at home when a census-taker arrives, he said, "we will do something called 'imputation.' " This requires a census-taker to gather information from around a house to get an idea of how many people might live there.
"We don't want to have to do that," Mr. Behler said, adding that it is better than no information at all.
The Long Island arm of the Census Bureau has already hired 1,607 enumerators, 830 of whom are at work in Suffolk County. About a quarter of them are expected to start knocking on doors as early as Wednesday.
This article has been updated to correct Ms. Menin's official title.