SCHENECTADY — With census responses still trickling in from Schenectady residents slowly, organizations and agencies are working to get more people to stand up and be counted.
Some of the same groups that formed the Schenectady County COVID-19 Emergency Response Coalition are now trying to boost the anemic participation rate locally.
Given their mission and funding streams, they are keenly aware of the importance of an accurate census count — it helps bring federal and state money that the city, county and local human services providers need to serve residents.
Only 48.9 percent of Schenectady residents had filled out the census form as of Tuesday, compared with 63.4 percent of county residents, 59.2 percent of New York state residents and 63.4 percent of all Americans.
The numbers are based on census tracts, some of which spill over from the city into the adjoining town. Census tract 214 (in Schenectady’s Mont Pleasant neighborhood) has the lowest response rate in the county at just 29.4 percent, well below the 46.3 percent response tallied there in the 2010 census. Census tract 321.01 (northeast Niskayuna) is leading at 84.6 response, nearly as much as its 86 percent response in 2010.
The Schenectady Foundation is helping mobilize the effort, which also includes the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, City Mission, Ellis Hospital, YWCA, city Housing Authority, assorted county departments, neighborhood associations and Habitat for Humanity.
“This is kind of what we do,” said Robert Carreau, executive director of the Schenectady Foundation, a charitable trust founded in 1963 to benefit the health and well-being of city residents. “I don’t know that we’re leading it. We’re a catalyst — we’re convening it.”
The census hadn’t been on the foundation’s radar, Carreau said, especially once the pandemic gripped the area and created its own set of pressing needs. But when he learned the Census counting period would be shortened rather than lengthened — enumeration will end Sept. 30 — he saw the likely consequences.
“To me, that was scary, especially for areas like ours where there’s an undercount, especially in those communities that need the services funded by [a complete census count],” he said. “There’s so many things that we need in this community that our voices need to be heard.”
Non-participation in the 10-year census is widespread and longstanding, and it forces the Census Bureau to use statistical models to make estimates to fill in the gaps.
If the final tally is less than the actual number of residents in the city, population-based federal grants and assistance can be reduced.
The Census Bureau has said the top five reasons that people don’t respond to the census are 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. Generally, 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.
To overcome these things, the Schenectady organizations are reaching out to their constituencies and pressing the message that a lot of programs depend on an accurate census.
While the message needs to be the same from each messenger, the way it is delivered will vary.
“Each organization within their own culture, their own mission, they can figure out how to reach the goal we need to reach,” Carreau said.
On Thursday morning, scores of people came to ViaPort Rotterdam for a drive-through food pantry run by the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. Along with food, they got a quick pitch on the census, and on the mechanics and importance of responding if they hadn’t already.
There’ll be social media outreach and probably short videos, but Thursday’s food pantry event is a model they’ll use often, Carreau said. “Whenever we can, we’ll tag on the census to an existing event.”
He’s also hoping to add more voices to the chorus: “Some of the messaging needs to come from leaders in the neighborhoods themselves — it can’t just come from elected officials,” he said.
“We have a few of those leaders who are willing to get that message out.”