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Philly and Region at Risk of Losing Census-Driven Dollars

The 2020 Census self-response rates for the cities in the region and small shore towns are lagging. The consequences for the next decade could be devastating

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Amid the stress of the pandemic and unable to afford her rent, Crystal Rivera forgot about the notice she got in the mail asking her to fill out the 2020 Census. 

“I moved so… it passed my mind,” Rivera said of the mid-March notice. 

She’s not alone. There are others like her who are more worried about keeping a roof over their heads than filling out the 2020 Census. 

“People are trying to find stability,” Rivera said. 

But experts say those very people who are struggling are the ones who are most important to count in the census. The decennial survey counts both population and housing. It’s used to determine federal funding for a variety of social services for each town and state for the next decade. 

So far, that future federal aid is in jeopardy. 

Pockets of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware are lagging in responding to the 2020 census. 

As of Sep. 23, Philadelphia had a 55% self-response rate – nearly 10 percentage points lower than the last census. Camden had a 48% response rate. And wealthy beach towns are also struggling – Dewey Beach, Del. had a 10% rate. Avalon, NJ had a 9% rate.

2020 Census – Philadelphia Area Repsonse Rate

This map shows the percentage of households in each neighborhood that filled out the 2020 Census form through September 18. The Census is now going door-to-door trying to get more responses for the national head count.

Source: census.gov

Not included in those rates are how many people have been counted by Census workers who have been going door-to-door since August. According to the Census, about 80% of the homes in Philadelphia that have not self-responded have been counted by the Census enumerators.  

That still leaves thousands of households to be counted. 

“The stakes are high because every year over $675 billion come back to the community in terms of roads, schools, hospitals,” said Fernando Armstrong, Census Regional Director overseeing Pennsylvania and Delaware. 

On Sep. 24, a federal judge ordered the Census Bureau to extend the self-response deadline to Oct. 31 – up from September 30 – which advocacy groups have been pushing for. The Census Bureau could appeal that decision.

'Too Much Trouble'

This year the coronavirus pandemic hampered the Census’ planned efforts to make sure people filled out the survey. And complicating matters further, the bureau hired less than half of the number of Census enumerators as it did in 2010.

“The design of the 2020 census permits us to not hire the huge amount of people we had to hire in the past,” Armstrong said.

This was the first year that the Census allowed people to fill and submit the questionnaire online. The theory was that the online submission option was supposed to make it easier for people to fill out and not need that in-person assistance. 

But the low level of self-responses in urban areas and shore towns shows that there is still a great need for enumerators – the workers who go door-to-door to homes that have not filled out the census on their own.

Cities like Philadelphia lag behind other areas of the country in filling out the U.S. Census, yet that could mean the loss in federal funding. NBC10 investigative reporter Claudia Vargas found out that Philadelphia spent more than $1 million trying to get people to respond.

If it weren’t for one of those enumerators knocking on Rivera’s Fairhill home in August, she may never have filled out the census. 

NBC10 spoke with a few people who in September hadn’t yet filled out the census. One man didn’t know what it was. 

Some people, like Richard Paul Gonzalez, said even with the various options – online, mail and phone – the census is “too much trouble” to fill out on his own. Plus, he wanted to make sure his information was counted. 

“I was waiting for the man to come take it so I knew it was recorded,” Gonzalez said. 

Short on Enumerators

As of mid-August the Census had only hired 220,000 enumerators – short of its 300,000 goal according to a letter from the Census Bureau to the Office of Inspector General. Both of those figures are much less than the 564,000 workers hired in 2010

Still, the Census planned to have 2,000 workers following up with non-responsive households in Philly. But when that number fell short, the bureau plucked people from other parts of the country and sent them to Philly "to get to that number,” Armstrong said. 

The same has been done in other cities where there aren’t enough Census workers. Taxpayers pick up the tab for the airfare and hotel stays. 

Once on the ground, enumerators have been working almost around the clock. 

“Most of them are working overtime to maximize their availability,” Armstrong said, adding that the Census is offering up to $700 bonuses for those workers who work the most hours. 

“We have established an award system to promote, encourage people to work the most hours they can,” he said.

Asked about worker fatigue and possible mistakes that can come from it, Armstrong said the enumerators tell the bureau, via an app, how many hours they want to work – and the days and times they are available. 

Normally the enumerators are out between April and July, but because of COVID-19, enumerators couldn't go out in the streets until August.

The deadline for both self responses and for enumerators to complete the follow-ups is now Oct. 31. After that, it’s up to Census bureau workers to go through property records and other available data to determine the precise population and housing unit count for every Census tract. 

A complete count must be filed by Dec. 31. 

Second Homes

The Philadelphia suburbs have done better with the response rate this year than in 2010, but some of those suburbanites with shore homes have not been filling out the census for their second home. 

Avalon, New Jersey has the worst self-response rate in the region. Only 9% of households have responded to the Census. And Cape May County, where Avalon is located, is the worst county in the region – 32% of households in the county have responded. 

Jeff Behler, a Census regional director overseeing New Jersey, said the rates are low in shore towns because many homes are second residences. 

But Behler said that’s not an excuse to not fill out the census. Every property needs to have it filled out. 

Low rates of U.S. Census responses are found in some Jersey Shore towns. NBC10 investigative reporter Claudia Vargas found out what the problem is in vacation towns.

“What we ask them to do is put that zero people usually live or stay there,” Behler said for the shore homes. 

The rule is you have to count yourself and your family in the home you are primarily living in as of April 1. And for the other properties you may own – be it a shore home or a house in the Poconos – note that zero people live there. 

“The Census Bureau needs to do a better job of explaining the second home process,” Behler said. 

Those Census numbers determine the amount of storm recovery and wildlife restoration grants shore towns get. For example, the Hurricane Sandy recovery grants that shore towns received were all census-driven. 

Food Security At Risk

In poor neighborhoods, the census can determine whether people have enough food to eat.

“For the individual family that’s struggling right now, if there’s an undercount in the census that means we’re gonna have less resources in our Share Food program to give out to that family,” said George Matysik, executive director at Share Food Program.

Share Food Program is one of the largest food banks in the region, serving about 1 million people a month who are food insecure. The funding they receive and actual food from the federal government is based on Census numbers. 

Matysik said that since the pandemic struck and left so many people out of work, the need for food in the region has more than doubled. He is hoping people will fill out the census so they can keep providing for the community.

“We need people to raise their voices and be heard,” he said. 

To fill out the Census, visit 2020Census.gov or call 1-844-330-2020.

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