PROVINCETOWN — The town’s Recovery Coalition is working on a phased reopening of Provincetown’s economy that depends on knowing how many people are here. That won’t be easy.
Census packages won’t arrive in mailboxes across the country until mid-March, but officials and community groups on Cape Cod are strategizing now about how to make sure everyone here is counted.
Data gathered in next year’s U.S. census will be used to determine the distribution of federal funds and legislative representatives for the next 10 years. That’s why counting everyone is so important, according to Kristy Senatori, the executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, which is part of a so-called complete count committee, tasked with improving participation of hard to count populations.
Senatori’s concern is that with populations on Cape Cod falling in recent years, our region stands to lose federal funding on many fronts.
The Outer Cape’s population decline appears to track Barnstable County’s fairly closely, with Provincetown being an exception. Countywide, according to the American Community Survey, the population has decreased 1.62 percent since 2010. Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham’s numbers have decreased by 0.2 percent, 0.76 percent, and 1.72 percent, respectively. Provincetown has grown by 0.61 percent.
These percentages may seem small, but Senatori says they could translate into real losses in federal dollars that go towards infrastructure like roads, wastewater systems, and transportation, as well as services like health care, education, and emergency preparedness programs.
With its broad consequences, “The necessity of a complete and accurate count can’t be overstated,” Senatori told the Independent.
Counting everyone is not simple in any community. But the extreme seasonal variation in the population of the Outer Cape presents special challenges. One concern is that immigrants and undocumented people may be especially afraid to interact with census workers or divulge information. Seasonal residents who spend most of the winter elsewhere also appear to be prone to being miscounted.
Although a federal judge permanently struck down the Trump administration’s attempt to include a citizenship question on the census (which advocates argued would intimidate undocumented people and prevent them from filling out census forms), immigrants may still be wary of completing the census.
Andrea Aldana, director of housing advocacy at the Community Development Partnership, is one local advocate of the importance of census participation. CDP programming is not directly affected by census counts, Aldana said. Still, the impact comes indirectly because the numbers affect allocations for housing and a range of services that help people here.
Aldana worries about the count on the Outer Cape. In the case of immigrants, she said, some may fear opening the door to a census worker.
“The census is the most official interaction you’d have with someone that you didn’t solicit,” Aldana said. “Someone in uniform knocking on your door — that’s terrifying.”
Jack Yuntis, the Barnstable county administrator who serves on the local complete count committee, emphasized in an interview with the Independent that census data is strictly confidential and will not be shared with any enforcement agency, including ICE. Instead, he explained, data are aggregated at town and county levels so that individuals and households cannot be identified.
As for seasonal residents, they should expect to receive census packets at each of their addresses, New York Regional Census Bureau director Jeff Behler said.
The concern locally is that some people who spend a few months away each year may respond incorrectly, thus diminishing the count of older people here.
A packet should be completed for each address, with careful attention to properly identifying which address is the primary one. A seasonal resident should report herself and anyone else who lives at the residence where she spends the majority of her time. If her winter address is not where she spends the majority of her time, she should report zero people there.
Recruiting census workers is another challenge. The New York Regional Census Bureau, which hires workers for the northeast, has reached only 27 percent of its goal for applications received in Barnstable County.
Behler said that the bureau’s target was 2,600 applications, expecting that a third of those would lead to census-taking jobs. So far, they have received only about 700 applications.
Behler added that the regional bureau is hoping to improve response rates by encouraging mail-in and online participation. (This year will be the first that responding online is possible.) “We’re investing in trying to get people to self-respond,” he said — meaning to respond without having someone come knock at the door for an interview.
Aside from her hopes for a count that will maximize federal support for infrastructure, the CDP’s Aldana is hopeful the census might shed light on some positive demographic trends on the Outer Cape.
“The lack of racial diversity has been the hardest thing about living here for me,” Aldana said. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia. While current data put the Lower Cape’s towns at 94 to 98 percent white, she said, “I have this sense that our communities are becoming more racially diverse.”
Aldana thinks that the numbers on outmigration of young people may also be changing, with more beginning to stay or return. She is interested in seeing what the count reveals on that front.
Good demographics will help ensure resources, Aldana says, but a hidden upside could also be that the census data might help transform our understanding of who this community includes.