The regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Jeff Behler, said May 15 he believes the 2020 decennial census on the East End of Long Island can be completed successfully by the end of the year, despite the fact that in some areas, like Amagansett, Bridgehampton, and Hither Hills in Montauk, the count has never started. Field operations were put on hold because of the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March.
On Friday, East Hampton Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said she is advocating for the town to kickstart the process. Burke-Gonzalez is particularly concerned that an undercount in this particular census, the effect of which will be felt for the next decade, would coincide with future funding in a post-COVID-19 recovery. The numbers dictate where billions of dollars are spent each year.
The census, taken every 10 years, is essentially a two-step process. In 2019, a master address list of all residences in America was finalized, according to the Census Bureau. This past March, using that address list, the bureau was scheduled to contact each residence, to determine who, if anyone, was living there.
For 95 percent of the country, including almost half the East End, this initial contact was done successfully by mail. Census forms have been completed, nationally, for 59.5 percent of all residences in the country, as of May 16. Most were completed online at www.my2020census.gov.
What happened to the other five percent, though, is the critical problem for the East End. These are areas that the Census Bureau has determined receive their mail predominantly via post office boxes. Since the Census Bureau can’t match physical addresses to the PO boxes, it uses a program called Update Leave, in which all contact with a residence is made in-person by a census taker. This person-to-person program started on March 15, Behler said, only to be shut down, along with the rest of the nation, two days later.
The impact on the East End’s five towns is staggering. As of May 16, East Hampton Town’s response rate was only 24.5 percent, Southampton’s 31, and Southold, 33.1. Riverhead, which is mostly direct mail contact from the census bureau, was at 50 percent, while Shelter Island, where the only form of contact the Census Bureau uses is Update-Leave, was in single digits, just over eight percent.
On the South Fork, almost all residences in areas like Sagaponack (9.9 percent), Amagansett (4.7), Bridgehampton (11.1) and Hither Hills (10.5) have never been contacted by the Census Bureau.
According to Behler, once Long Island is moved into the Phase I reopening stage by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Census Bureau will resume its field operations.
However, beginning field operations doesn’t mean that census takers will immediately be deployed. He said the bureau has been in weekly contact with those already recruited and trained for the Update-Leave operation, to assure they feel comfortable going out into the field.
New census takers will be recruited as well. The Census Bureau has adapted its training program to meet social distancing rules from COVID-19. New recruits will meet once, three or four at a time, in a space where social distancing is possible, Behler said. “We will swear them in, give them their device and paperwork, then send them home. All their training will be done online,” he said.
The bureau has obtained hundreds of thousands of masks for census takers.
There will be no direct contact with residents in the first phase of Update-Leave. Instead, a pouch will be left at the entrance to the residence containing information about completing the census form online, by mail, or by phone. The number for those who speak English is 844-330-2020, and Spanish, 844-468-2020.
“The phone lines are staffed from 7 AM to 2 AM eastern time. The rush for phone calls has passed, so I have been hearing that someone is answering quickly, no wait times. And any day is great to call,” Behler said.
Once these pouches are distributed, the operation will shut down again until the next phase for the decennial, called Non-Response Follow Up, which goes by the acronym NRFU. That operation was supposed to start last week. It has been pushed back to August 13.
Time Is Wasting
All this is well and good, Burke-Gonzalez said, but time is wasting.
The further East End response rates fall behind the national one, the harder it will be to get an accurate count. Burke-Gonzalez has years of experience in direct marketing. One possible solution, she believes, is for the town to target each post office box in all of East Hampton with a postcard. The postcard would explain the problem in a couple of sentences, then offer a simple solution to those with internet access: log on to my 2020census.gov, enter your address, and complete the census form.
Tax assessment rolls could also be used as well, with a mailing to each property owner’s address.
Burke-Gonzalez, who is the town board’s liaison for the 2020 Decennial, said she would be discussing possible solutions at the town board’s May 19 virtual meeting.
Counting the homeless is also a major challenge. Behler conceded that, every day that goes past April 1, census day, it becomes more difficult to determine who was living where. Normally the count of the homeless, which is done through a variety of homeless-related agencies and services, such as shelters and mobile food providers for the indigent, is completed in late March. Given the movement of people caused by COVID-19, the Census Bureau is currently adjusting its methodology for counting that segment of the population.
New York City is also a major crisis zone for the census. Areas of the city, such as East Elmhurst and Corona in Queens, have been devastated by COVID-19. “What worries me, in New York City, is that we have so many people who have left. Whether they went out to Long Island, or they went to upstate New York, or Florida.” The city is far behind the rest of the country in response rate. The NRFU operation will be key in getting an accurate count for both the East End and the city.
The good news, Behler said, if anything can be construed as good news during a pandemic, is that the Census Bureau knows where the problem areas
are, in terms of response, and can field census takers accordingly.
New York City contains neighborhoods that speak multiple languages. In hiring its census takers, the bureau made sure that each language in each area could be spoken by at least some of those hired for the neighborhood, Behler said.
In both the city and on the East End, the bureau is relying on its partnership program. These are community members, “trusted voices,” Behler said, that are essential in the census process in helping people understand and complete the census.
The challenge for the Census Bureau will be to reconstruct where residents should have been on April 1. For example, if someone temporarily moved to a second house in Montauk in March, but normally would have been in Manhattan as of April 1, that is where that person should count themselves. The same is true for students.
At the same time, a census form for the second house should be filled out, indicating that it is a second house.
Person-to-person contact is part of the census process, especially for NRFU. Social distancing will be the rule. Come August, a census taker will knock on a door the bureau believes it has not received a response from, then step back six feet.
The COVID-19 world presents a challenge to completing the census, but, Behler believes, it is a challenge that can be met.