SCHENECTADY — Resident response to the 2020 U.S. Census in the city of Schenectady is lagging significantly as the nationwide count enters its home stretch.
With seven weeks to go before the count of America’s citizens ends, the city stood at a 48.6 percent response rate Tuesday, well below the state (58.7 percent) and national (63.1 percent) response rates, and far below that of its suburbs, which ranged as high as 77.1 percent (Niskayuna).
It’s a worrisome trend for local officials, who say that an accurate count is important for the cash-strapped city to gain the federal funding it deserves and effectively plan for the future.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy launched a census participation initiative at the start of April with the goal of reaching 80 percent participation by the end of May. It was 28 percent at the time.
He said Wednesday there are likely multiple reasons for the low response rate, including residents simply not understanding why the government is asking all those questions.
“I think some of it still is the skepticism of people who worry about what the information will be used for,” McCarthy said.
Federal funding for Community Development Block Grants and other programs is allocated by a formula that’s based on census results, he said. Numerous community programs are funded in this manner, while planners and business owners rely on the numbers to make decisions.
There’s still time to fill out the census form and submit it online or via the mail. Also, canvassers have begun fanning out to contact in person those who haven’t responded, a task that greatly increases the effort involved and which is complicated by the ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. They have until Sept. 30 to reach out to the laggards.
The Census Bureau is still accepting applications for the temporary jobs through its website. Pay varies by region and duty; in Schenectady County, the job of census taker pays $20 per hour, plus expenses.
The U.S. Census Bureau has long sought to address low participation rates in its decennial effort to develop an accurate count and profile of Americans.
Its 2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes and Motivators Study found the top five concerns that kept people from answering the census were concerns about data confidentiality, fear of repercussions, distrust in all levels of governments, belief it doesn’t matter if they are counted and belief the census won’t benefit them personally. Those with lower levels of education or limited internet proficiency were less likely to respond to the census, as were members of some minority groups.
Many in the city of Schenectady match at least some of these characteristics.
“It’s not just Schenectady, it’s urban areas,” McCarthy said. “I’ve been looking at Albany, Schenectady, Troy, we’re generally comparable. We’re lagging the suburbs.”
Plenty of people don’t fill out their census form — participation was only 74 percent nationwide in 2010.
To fill the gap, the Census Bureau takes the response data and other information such as DMV records, school enrollment and tax returns to estimate the number of people who didn’t respond, then presents the sum as the population of the nation and its states and their localities.
The problem, McCarthy said, is that the estimate seems invariably to undercount cities.
As of Tuesday, many mid-sized upstate cities were right around the 50 percent mark on census participation, just like Schenectady, including Albany, Gloversville, Troy, Amsterdam, Poughkeepsie, Niagara Falls and Utica.
Glens Falls, Johnstown and Saratoga Springs were outliers, all above 60 percent, as was Hudson at 42 percent.
Wealthier, whiter suburbs (Bethlehem, Clifton Park, Niskayuna) led the response rate at 77.1 percent to 78.3 percent. The lowest in the region was the Saratoga County town of Day at 19.3 percent, but that town has a large seasonal population, suggesting the statistics are skewed by part-time residents who don’t respond from that address.
(The slowest response in the state has been in Ocean Beach and Saltaire, both around 8 percent. Both are villages on Fire Island with thousands of summer residents but only a handful of year-round residents.)
Even as Albany, Schenectady and Troy are lagging, their counties rank relatively well among New York’s 62 counties: Albany County was 12th highest, Schenectady County 10th and Rensselaer County 23rd.
As of Tuesday, the response rate in Schenectady County was 63.1 percent. The rates for its municipalities:
- Delanson 42%
- Duanesburg 68.1%
- Glenville 76%
- Niskayuna 77.1%
- Princetown 71.4%
- Rotterdam 72.7%
- Schenectady 48.5%
- Scotia 70.5%