Libraries and local government will play important role in 2020 census

HILLTOWNS — For the second time since it was introduced in 1790, the United States census will be available to complete online this year.

 It’s a major change for the U.S. Census Bureau, which disallowed an online option in 2010 because of security and efficiency concerns, and it reflects the rapid technological advancements made in the last 10 years. The census first made online responses available in 2000, but did not publicize it and received digital responses from only 63,000 households out of more than 100 million, according to Pew Research Center.

While the digital shift is meant to maximize efficiency and cut down on environmental impacts, not all citizens are ready and able to complete the census online as the bureau is requesting. Residents who are older and lack computer skills or those with poor connectivity — both groups which make up a significant portion of Hilltown demographics — may have difficulty.

The Census Bureau will still accommodate citizens who are unable to go online or who refuse to do so by mailing out paper surveys, but those won’t be seen by most citizens until after the online form is available nationwide in March.

To help with the digital push, local libraries — including the Altamont Free Library, and the Westerlo, Berne, and Rensselaerville public libraries — are installing laptops dedicated to filling out the census.

“[The Altamont Free Library] is a smaller space,”  its director, Joseph Burke told The Enterprise, “but with the space that we do have, we can have two laptops in the community room dedicated to the census.”

Burke said that library staff has also received training to help residents with any questions they may have about the form and can show an instructional video from the Census Bureau to anyone who needs it. 

“We are very mindful that not everyone has the computer skills necessary to fill out the census,” Burke said. “We will be available to answer any questions that may come up.” 

To help with the count overall, some towns on the Hill have set up Complete Count Committees, which will work with census officials to pinpoint difficult-to-reach populations and find ways to connect with them. 

“It’s fundamentally an awareness-raising organization,” said Burke, who is also a member of Altamont’s Complete Count Committee. “We’re a point of contact between the community and census officials.”

“[We] are working with Bob Scardamalia,” said Berne Supervisor Sean Lyons, referring to a U.S. Census Bureau Partnership Specialist, “to set up a Complete Count Committee, offering our library for census staff, certifying the town borders for the Census Bureau and generally filling requests from Bob’s office to assist however we can.” 

Westerlo’s town supervisor, William Bichteman, said that Westerlo does not yet have a Complete Count Committee, but that it will be his recommendation to the town board that one be created. 

All this work to get as accurate a count as possible is not only in the line of duty to the federal government, which requires census participation in its Constitution, but it ensures that the towns will receive the federal, state, and county aid that they’re entitled to, as these governments use census data to determine eligibility. 

According to Assistant Regional Census Manager Lisa Moore, approximately $675 billion is distributed through federal programs every year using census information. Moore did not indicate that the rural Hilltowns are any more vulnerable to an undercount than other areas of Albany County, but did stress the need for education nonetheless.

“What we’re working to overcome is why the census matters,” Moore told The Enterprise. 

In Albany County, sales-tax dollars are redistributed based on population. Berne, for instance, has $1,064,000 from county sales tax listed in its budget for 2020 based on its 2010 census count of 2,794. 

“If someone has that direct connection to regularly driving on town roads or has a child in the school district … that’s the funding aspect [of why the census matters],” Moore told the Enterprise.

More valid than apathy, though, are concerns about security and privacy.

“What we want everyone to be aware of is confidentiality,” Moore said. “By law, we cannot share any information that would identify individuals.” 

That means the Census Bureau cannot under any circumstances provide information to police agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or marketers. 

As for security, Moore explained that data is encrypted and as secure from hackers as possible.

“For cybersecurity, we’ve gone through all the necessary measures,” she said. “As soon as you hit ‘submit,’ it’s behind a firewall and protected from outside attacks.” 

On Feb. 7, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy announced the dedication of $300,000 to census-taking efforts within the county. The bulk of the money — $225,000 — will be allocated to not-for-profits, like food pantries, that apply for funding. Neither the Guilderland Food Pantry nor the Hilltown Community Resource Center plan to work with the Census Bureau, The Enterprise has learned.

The $75,000 that remains of that money will be distributed to governments and institutions throughout the county.

“Municipalities, schools and libraries will identify their work plans and budgets in their [request for proposal] responses,” spokeswoman for McCoy’s office Mary Rozak told The Enterprise, “and the county will award funding based on their ability to reach out to historically undercounted populations.”

The first invitations to take the census will be sent out to Albany County residents in March. From March 30 through April 1, the Census Bureau will count the country’s homeless population. 

April 1 is Census Day, marking the date when everyone has received an invitation to take the census online, by phone, or through the mail. Starting in May, census workers will visit households which have not yet responded.

The census will be complete by December and the counts will be delivered to the federal government, and from there they will be received by state governments which will use the data to redraw legislative districts.

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