Hilltowns still far behind suburbs in census self-response

ALBANY COUNTY — With less than a month left for United States citizens to fill out their census forms, the rural Hilltowns still lag far behind their suburban neighbors of Guilderland and New Scotland with an average self-response rate of about 56 percent, according to data from the United States Census Bureau.

The last day to fill out a census form is Sept. 30. Mailed forms must be postmarked by that date and will be accepted by the U.S. Census Bureau no later than Oct. 7.

Collected once every 10 years, census data plays a critical role in local funding. Besides federal funding to localities being based on the census tallies, Albany County sales-tax, for instance, is disbursed to municipalities based on population. It funds approximately 38 percent of Hilltown government budgets, on average.

County sales-tax figures are especially important in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down a majority of businesses in mid-March. County sales-tax  losses were as high as 32.2 percent at the virus’s peak, and losses are still being reported after most of those businesses reopened on July 1.

The numbers

As of Sept. 2, Guilderland has a self-response rate of 74.1 percent and New Scotland of 73.7 percent. Meanwhile, Knox has a self-response rate of 68.8 percent, Westerlo 61.5 percent, Berne 53 percent, and Rensselaerville 40.2 percent. 

Knox, it should be noted, has greatly improved its self-response rate since 2010, when 56.8 percent of households self-responded. Berne’s is five percentage points lower so far this year than in 2010, and Rennsealerville is about 3 percentage points lower than last year. Westerlo’s rate is half-a-percentage-point higher than in 2010.

But the Hilltown rate is up only approximately 5-percent since The Enterprise last reported its collective response rate in June, shortly after the U.S. Census Bureau began hand-delivering census forms to households that don’t have direct-to-home mailing addresses, which accounts for 20 percent of Berne households and 17 percent of Rensselaerville households. Only 2 percent of households in Knox and Westerlo have this sort of address.

While citizens are being encouraged for the first time in the U.S. census’s history to submit a form online, self-response rates are not necessarily higher as a result. There was concern early on that the digital focus would reduce the self-response rates of areas like the Hilltowns that have poor internet access.

In February, The Enterprise reported that local libraries would help provide rural residents the internet access they need to complete their census form. All three Hilltowns libraries — in Berne, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville — suspended operation a month later in response to the pandemic.

Many residents of Knox, which doesn’t have its own library, use the library in Altamont, which has been aggressive in getting residents to fill out census forms and had a census staffer at the library last week to help people fill out the short surveys.

It’s difficult to know exactly how many Hilltown households suffer from poor or absent internet connectivity, Hudson Valley Wireless General Manager Jason Guzzo told The Enterprise in June, but Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell has said that more than 200 of the district’s students don’t have internet access at home. 

While a majority of Hilltowns responses were submitted over the web — Rensselaerville being a drastic exception with just 45 percent of its responses coming in digitally — the ratio is still lower than that of more populous areas, though higher than the national ratio. 

Excluding Rensselaerville, approximately 78 percent of Hilltowns self-responses were submitted online, compared to 88.5 percent of Guilderland and New Scotland self-responses. Approximately 77-percent of self-responses nationwide were submitted online.

A new round of paper questionnaires has been sent out to 16.2 million households nationwide in low-responding census tracts, the Bureau reported, and will arrive by Sept. 15.


Nonresponse follow-up

While the self-response rates for the Hilltowns are low, they don’t reflect the enumeration rate. 

On Aug. 9, census workers nationwide started visiting households that had not responded to the census in what’s called the nonresponse followup phase. The bureau reports that 47,834 paid temporary census workers serviced the New York region — a conglomerate of eight states and Puerto Rico — between Aug. 16 and Aug. 22, the most recent data available. 

U.S. Census Bureau New York Regional Director Jeff Behler told The Enterprise in June that workers may visit one household more than five times in an attempt to get a response.

“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.” 

Census workers wear personal protective equipment and, when interacting with citizens, follow local guidelines as well as guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Aug. 31, the bureau announced that workers will follow up with some households that already responded to ensure accuracy and clarify any vague data that’s been noticed. 

So far, nearly 20 percent of the nation’s enumerated households have been captured through the follow-up response, which will continue through Sept. 30, altered from the original date of Oct. 31 that The Enterprise reported in June. Nearly 85 percent of U.S. households have been counted so far.

The Albany Area Census Office, which spans the eastern border of the state down to Columbia County, has completed 58.8 percent of the followup workload as of Sept. 3, suggesting that roughly 80 percent of households in that region have been counted. 

The Enterprise could not immediately get more specific data. 

Any household that cannot be counted in the follow-up phase will be calculated indirectly, Behler told The Enterprise in June, relying on interviews with neighbors, administrative records, and, if all else fails, statistical analysis based on surrounding households. 

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

More Hilltowns News

  • Todd Gallup, of Berne, pours slop for his pigs.

    Stephen Hadcock, Beginning Farmer Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, told The Enterprise that, over the last decade or longer, he’s seen an increase in the number of people who have taken steps to start their own farm. The Enterprise spoke with Hadcock and new Berne farmer Todd Gallup for insight into the process of starting a farm from scratch. 

  • Todd Schwendeman

    Todd Schwendeman announced his resignation from the Berne Planning Board, offering the town board a way to appoint convicted felon Tom Spargo back to the board after his short, illegal tenure. 

  • Vandalism was discovered in Westerlo’s town park this week, with graffiti artwork and crude phrases scrawled around the pavilion. 

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