Census response rates continue to lag in upstate New York, with just under a month left before data collection wraps up.
Jefferson County currently has a self-response rate of 46.5 percent, Lewis County has a rate of 43.1 percent, and St. Lawrence County has a rate of 55.8 percent. All three trend lower than their self-response rates in 2010, which varied between 59 percent for Jefferson County and 66 percent for Lewis County.
Jeff Behler, regional director of census operations for New York, seven other northeastern states and the territory of Puerto Rico, said that he is hoping that response rates will increase as census takers continue to knock on doors, and as people begin to see marketing pushes for the census in their local communities.
“Typically, once we start door-knocking we see self-response rates increase by up to 10 percent,” Mr. Behler said. “We’re looking for that to happen as well.”
In the north country, migrant workers are one of the obstacles in the effort to get a complete and accurate count of people. Frequently, migrant workers live on the farms where they work during the growing and harvesting seasons, and may be discouraged from responding to the census for a variety of reasons. In 1990, experts believe that at least half of the nations migrant workers went uncounted.
Mr. Behler said that the Census Bureau is relying on local marketing programs and community outreach to bridge that gap.
“We work with local trusted voices, so we identify who is the trusted voice to those workers,” Mr. Behler said. “Sometimes, we understand it may not be the business owner or the farm owner, it may be a local church, a local restaurant, a community organization that provides services.”
This year has posed unique challenges for the Census Bureau. The count was initially planned to start early in the year, with census takers beginning to knock on doors in May. That timeline was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The door knocking phase would’ve concluded, along with self-response, at the end of July, that was the original period,” Mr. Behler said. “Of course, we put out a proposed schedule, and that was tweaked to move the date back to Sept. 30. All data collection activities, whether it’s self-responding, whether that’s online, over the phone or on paper, or us knocking on doors, will conclude Sept. 30 of this year.”
Initially, the revised census schedule indicated that the count would conclude on Oct. 31, but the deadline was abruptly shortened in early August as the bureau attempts to finalize its count by Dec. 31.
The bureau’s door-knocking efforts have been complicated by the pandemic as well. While it has never been uncommon for census takers to encounter people who do not want to answer their questions, this year has introduced health concerns into the mix as well.
“If no one answers the door, and there’s folks who don’t answer the door to anyone right now, they’re concerned with COVID-19 and if they see someone they don’t recognize, they don’t answer the door,” Mr. Behler said.
He said that this year, census takers have been specifically trained to maintain distance at all times, wear masks, sanitize their hands regularly and minimize the amount of time they spend at each address.
If someone does not answer the door for a census taker, they leave notes indicating why they were there, and urge residents to respond to the census online.
This year, Mr. Behler said that national political divisions have complicated counting efforts more than they have in years past.
“There’s always issues, whether it’s anti-government or just people who want to be left alone, we hear about scares in the field over threats being made,” he said. “Certainly, there’s a lot of political division in this country and sometimes government itself can be looked at as negative, so that’s something that I would has increased this Census moreso.”
Mr. Behler said local and state governments have begun marketing pushes targeted towards people who have not yet responded to the census, and he hopes that, between the marketing materials and the door knocking, response rates will increase.
Mr. Behler said that the bureau has been relying on those marketing initiatives to encourage people to respond, as a way to overcome that fear of the federal government.
“Rather than a federal employee talking about the importance of the census, it’s the local mayor, the local elected official, their worship leader, a library or community based organizer, and that’s important.” “When the messaging is coming from them, talking about why it’s is important, letting them know that it’s safe to participate in the census and the data can’t be used against them, and then how easy it is to respond, when it’s coming from that local person, then it just goes so much farther.”