Reply to the census — let’s get our share of the pie

The first census forms — a once-every-decade event — showed up in mailboxes all across the United States on March 12. That was the same day that Albany County announced its first two confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019.

We, at The Enterprise, like the rest of the county and the rest of the nation, have been absorbed with the pandemic ever since.

April 1 of course is a day traditionally used for fooling friends but no one felt much like fooling this year. Albany County announced its second COVID-19 death that day. The number of confirmed cases and the number of deaths have continued to mount.

The first of April was also Census Day, but it largely went unnoticed. April 1 was set as Census Day in 1930 because enumerators needed a date by which to determine where someone without a permanent address would be counted.

Leading up to the 2020 census, before the outbreak of the coronavirus here, we had written about ways local governments and institutions — particularly libraries — were ready to help, to make sure everyone was counted. Now, of course, libraries are closed and many government workers are home.

In some ways, though, this is an ideal time to fill out a census form. You can do it online, by mail, or by phone. Many people are home with their regular activities curtailed. And many of our libraries, as you’ll note in their columns, are still willing to help; if you get stuck, you can send an email or leave a voicemail.

We just logged on the United States 2020 Census website, put in the identification number we were mailed more than a week ago, and filled out the questionnaire in a grand total of six minutes. You can do it, too. Just type in: www.2020 census.gov.

The questions are simple and straightforward: names, ages, sexes, races, and relationships of those living in a household at a particular address.

Because of the pandemic, the census bureau has pushed out its deadline for starting door-to-door outreach and also for finishing the count. The self-response phase has been extended to Aug. 14; the changed and perhaps changing dates are posted on a census website page about adjustments. The census must be completed by Dec. 31, 2020.

As of Sunday night, the national response rate to the census was 44.5 percent while the New York State response rate was 38.9 percent — understandably low since New York City is the epicenter now of the pandemic.

The census bureau updates those numbers regularly on its website and encourages communities to challenge each other. Albany County’s rate was 44.6 percent. Here are the self-response rates for the towns covered by The Enterprise, with the highest scores listed first: Guilderland is at 52.5 percent, New Scotland is at 50.9 percent, Knox is at 45.7 percent, Westerlo is at 36.3 percent, Berne is at 31.0 percent, and Rensselaerville is at 26.3 percent.

The rates in the rural areas of Albany County are understandably lower than in their suburban counterparts. Rural areas are often more difficult to count due to remoteness, limited internet access, and poverty, according to the Center for Rural Affairs.

But that is precisely why it is so important for residents of rural areas to make the effort to fill out the questionnaire. Rural areas tend to have an aging population and lack services, from broadband to health care. Money for those services will be determined by the numbers counted in the census.

For every person who goes uncounted, states and local governments may lose critical federal resources, says the Center for Rural Affairs, giving the example of its home state of Nebraska: For every uncounted resident of Nebraska, more than $2,000 will be lost annually. The center notes that this cost is even greater in states where a larger portion of spending is drawn from federal grants.

Were it not for the pandemic, census workers would already be going door-to-door to catch up with those who hadn’t filled out forms. We were impressed, looking through census history, to find pictures of an enumerator in 1920, wearing a suit and tie, census papers in hand with pen poised, taking information from a farmer, seated on a plow behind his horses in a field.

Another picture, from 1940, showed  a census worker in Fairbanks, Alaska, wearing a parka with a fur-lined hood, taking census information with mittened hands. A dog team waits nearby, the dog musher out of earshot to maintain confidentiality.

With the census workers being grounded by the pandemic, forbidden face-to-face encounters, it becomes all the more important for individuals to take the responsibility upon themselves. The pandemic itself, as it is playing out locally, illustrates the importance of being counted.

We’ve seen, during the outbreak, how our local schools are continuing to provide lunch to kids who might otherwise go hungry. Dollars for those lunch programs come from census numbers. We’ve also seen the importance of clinics and hospitals and emergency preparedness — all of those depend on census numbers.

The census, once every decade, is central to the functioning of our democracy, called for in the United States Constitution. It hasn’t been stopped by wars or by economic depression; it won’t be stopped by a pandemic.

An accurate count ensures that each place gets the representation to which it is entitled. It also ensures that federal dollars flow to the places where they are needed. According to Assistant Regional Census Manager Lisa Moore, approximately $675 billion is distributed through federal programs every year using census information. 

 Policy and decision-makers at all levels of government use census data to make informed choices as do sectors of business, industry, and services. If you don’t devote the few minutes it takes to fill out the questionnaire, you and your neighbors could lose out.

If you won’t do it for patriotic reasons or civic reasons, do it for selfish reasons.

Your progeny, in centuries hence, will be able to learn a bit about who you were if you fill out your census form now. Information you provide for the census is, by law, confidential. But, after 72 years, it is released to the public.

If you’ve done genealogical research, you know that individual information from every census up to and including the 1940 census can be viewed on microfilm from the National Archives, and much of that is also now available online.

The information is a goldmine not just for people seeking their roots but for historians piecing together the past from all different perspectives on all parts of these United States. For the period from the very first national census in 1790 right up until the latest census in 2010, the National Historic Geographic Information system has amassed computerized aggregate data describing the characteristics of small geographic areas.

So, please, avail yourself of the opportunity to make a better future for the place where you live and to become a part of history at the same time.

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