As the current deadline of Sept. 30 for completing the 2020 census draws near, low self-response rates and misconceptions about filling out the census questionnaire are lowering hopes for a reliable and accurate count. Self-response rates for Barnstable County stood at 49.2 percent this week, well below the state average of 67.7 percent. A possible reason for this dismal result is the low rate of reporting by second-home owners.
While new ways to fill out the census by phone and online have made it more accessible, delays in door-to-door operations due to the Covid-19 pandemic raise questions about how accurate this year’s data collection will be. And there have been accusations that the early deadlines are politically motivated, as census data is used for Congressional apportionment.
Besides the fear that millions of residents will not be counted by Sept. 30, a further concern is that the processing of data will be rushed and inaccurate because of a Dec. 31 deadline for that work.
The Provincetown Council on Aging issued a press release last week warning that the town “could lose millions in federal funding if 2020 census numbers don’t improve.” The statement cited a response rate of only 29 percent in Provincetown.
“It’s critically important that all residents fill out the 2020 census questionnaire as soon as possible,” said Senior Center Director Chris Hottle. “This low response rate could have a tremendous negative impact on grants received by the council on aging as well as for other human services providers and programs over the next 10 years, especially on top of anticipated grant funding cuts due to Covid.”
Some Cape Cod residents have reported filling out their census forms online multiple times, raising concerns that their original forms were never actually recorded. But this is how the census form works now on multiple platforms; residents can fill out the form more than once. Duplicate responses will be eliminated in the post-processing phase.
The September and December deadlines pose threats to the accuracy of the census, especially in harder-to-reach areas such as Outer Cape Cod. There is more reliance here on door-to-door canvasing, which has been delayed because of the pandemic. According to Jeff Behler, New York regional director of the Census Bureau, the Outer Cape is among roughly 5 percent of the nation’s households that rely on census invitation packages being distributed to homes directly, since they cannot be delivered to post office boxes.
Since Aug. 9, census takers have been approaching homes for which responses have not been recorded. As of Sept. 5, these nonresponse follow-up operations were 60.1 percent complete for the East Bridgewater Area Census Office, which encompasses Barnstable County.
While self-response rates remain low for a large part of the country, the data may be exaggerated for Barnstable County, as second-home owners may not be filling out the census correctly or at all. Jennifer Clinton, a community development planner at the Cape Cod Commission, said, “There was definitely some confusion locally for part of the summer about the role of second- home owners, especially because of the pandemic. A lot of them received the information here and then thought, ‘I already responded where I primarily live so I don’t need to respond,’ and that’s kind of true.”
Behler said, “Ideally, someone who owns a second home would fill out a form first at their primary residence, where they usually live or stay as of April 1, and then for the second home, we want them to fill it out, but we want them to put ‘zero people usually live or stay here.’ And then that would increase the self-response rate.”
“It decreases our margin of error and improves our data accuracy,” said Clinton, “if we can confirm there are zero people living here year-round.”
The census can be completed online at 2020census.gov. In spite of controversy over the issue this year, there is no question about U.S. citizenship on the census survey.