Low rural census response expected to rebound with hand-deliveries

— Photo from FDR Presidential Library, Dwight Hammack, U.S. Bureau of the Census
A census worker visits a household in Fairbanks, Alaska to log their information for the 1940 census, helping the country know exactly how many citizens it has, and how they're spread out. Eighty years later, citizens can fill the census out online, but households that do not submit a census by Aug. 11 should still expect a visit from a census worker.

HILLTOWNS — On May 27, the United States Census Bureau resumed hand-delivering census forms and official information to households in upstate New York that don’t have traditional, direct-to-home mailing addresses as part of the Bureau’s Update Leave program. These deliveries are crucial to the rural Hilltowns, where concentration of Update Leave households is higher than more populated parts of Albany County. 

Update Leave began on March 15 but was put on hold three days later, a Census newsletter reported, when the coronavirus was declared a pandemic and caused a nationwide shutdown.

Westerlo, Knox, Rensselaerville, and Berne currently have an average self-response rate of about 51 percent, with Rensselaerville at the low end with about 39 percent, and Knox on the high end with about 65 percent.

The Hilltown rate at this point is 20 percentage points lower than that of Guilderland, New Scotland, and Bethlehem, which have a collective rate of about 71.5 percent. The state self-response rate is about 55 percent, and the national rate is 60.5 percent.

In the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the combined self-response rate of all four Hilltowns averaged out to around 74 percent.

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. 

U.S. Census Bureau New York Regional Director Jeff Behler told The Enterprise this week that, with Update Leave operations up and running again, he expects to see a hike in the response rates of rural areas around the region.

Asked if the Update Leave delay will ultimately impact the accuracy of the count, Behler said, “I think at the end of the day, it won’t. Certainly now at the beginning of census data collection it has, because there are so many households that never got the official information unless they saw it on a commercial, or talked to someone at their work … They never knew what website to go to, they didn’t know what toll-free number to call, and of course they never received a paper questionnaire.” 

Although Update Leave affects only 1 percent of households in Albany County, these homes make up significant portions of some of the Hilltowns, where people are more likely to get their mail from post-office boxes instead of directly at their homes. 

Behler told The Enterprise that in Berne, 20 percent of households — about 350 units — are included in Update Leave. Rensselaerville is a close second, with 17 percent of its households — or 260 units — part of Update Leave. Knox and Westerlo each have about 2 percent of households in Update Leave, Behler said. 

“Those areas with larger Update Leave workloads are typically lagging in self-responses,” Behler said, “and that’s understandable.” 


After self-response

On Aug. 11, the Census Bureau will begin sending workers to households that have not filled out forms, Behler said, and will continue to do so until Oct. 31. In that time, a difficult-to-reach household may receive more than five visits from workers encouraging the residents to fill out the form. But many households will provide their information after one visit, Behler told The Enterprise. 

“At the same time we’re knocking on doors,” he said, “if someone doesn’t answer, we’re leaving a little reminder that says, ‘Hey, we stopped by and we’ll be back in a few days, or, if you want, you can call this toll-free number or go online at this website and complete your 2020 census.’ And we find that people usually do that instead of having someone come back to visit.” 

If a resident refuses to fill out a census form enough times, the Bureau will do one of three things to get the information for that household and bring the census closer to each municipality’s true population count, Behler said. 

The first option, Behler said, is to ask neighbors for information. If that’s not possible, workers will look back at administrative records and fill out information that way. And if all else fails, Behler said, the bureau will determine the most likely makeup of that household using statistical information from the surrounding area. 

“So our goal is truly 100-percent,” Behler said. ​


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