Getting your numbers right really counts—especially when they determine how billions in federal dollars are parceled out to vital services such as public safety and health care.
That’s the message Norma Drummond hopes folks have internalized by the time the 2020 Census gets underway this month.
Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the head count has been conducted every 10 years since 1790.
Westchester’s commissioner of planning has been busily dropping in on as many of its 45 towns, villages and cities as possible in a quest to drive home the importance of an accurate population poll and so people “know what to expect.”
Drummond recently visited Somers, North Salem and Lewisboro.
Drummond has sought to erase any lingering fears related to President Trump’s last-minute bid to include a citizenship question.
Critics said it was intended to intimidate households with immigrants—even those who are U.S. citizens— and could have distorted the final count to the detriment of all.
Because the data can only be used to produce statistics, it cannot be shared with immigration or law enforcement agencies.
It’s also about fair representation. Census numbers affect the balance of power in states and the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives. State officials use Census data to redraw the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts.
Calling them a “distraction,” the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t buy the Trump administration’s reasons for including the citizenship question and subsequently blocked it. Citizenship in general, however, continues to be a political lightning rod.
According to Drummond, the county uses Census data to “make informed decisions every day.”
It, municipalities, school districts, hospitals, nonprofits and regular citizens need solid numbers to “apply for grants and to direct resources where they are most needed,” she said.
Census data is also used to help resolve local issues and to plan for future development. It affects the size of the slice of tax sales pie municipalities sometimes rely on to balance their budgets.
New York has lost congressional seats in the past, so it’s important that its population is tallied correctly, Drummond told the Somers Town Board in November.
More importantly, she said, citing a George Washington Institute of Policy report, Census data is used to determine the distribution of $880 billion in federal funds each year.
“Every person that is not counted is a loss of approximately $2,500 a year to local municipalities and the county,” Drummond said. “That means that just 400 people not getting counted is a million-dollars-a year loss.”
For the first time, the majority of Americans won’t be getting a Census form in the mail. Instead, 95 percent will receive “invitations” to respond to it online.
Letters will be mailed to the public on March 16, April 8 and April 20.
Responses also can be submitted by phone or mail. Residents have until the end of July to respond. The Census Bureau must deliver the official count to the president by Dec. 31.
About 5 percent—most likely those who use post office boxes, have rural route addresses, or have been displaced by natural disasters—will get a form delivered to them.
The less than 1 percent who live in very remote areas such as northern Maine and Alaska will have to be tracked down and surveyed.
If residents haven’t responded by mid-April, they can expect to be visited by a Census taker.
The bureau is now allowed to canvass building managers and neighbors.
“If they’ve been knocking on that door, and nobody answers, they are allowed to ask neighbors how many people are living in that unit,” Drummond said.
As a last resort, the Census will use tax forms, food stamps, Medicaid rolls and data from Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Administration, Health and Human Service, Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service to obtain the count.
Census data cannot be shared with any other federal department.
The questions are very basic: name, sex, age, birth date, race, ethnicity, whether the person is of Hispanic, Spanish or Latino heritage and what his or her relationship is to “Person 1,” the owner or renter of the home.
Drummond has raised concerns over whether seniors and disabled residents would have the tech savvy—or equipment—to respond electronically. Sixteen percent of Westchester’s residents are over 65 and 10 percent of residents have some sort of disability. On top of that, 8.3 percent are living in poverty and might not have access to a computer.
Collectively, these special needs groups represent about 250,000 people, or 25 percent of the population.
The county intends to reach out to senior centers and nutrition programs, not only to educate seniors about responding online but what to expect if someone comes to their door.
“There are so many scams out there that affect our seniors. We really want them to be careful, but we want them to respond to the Census,” Drummond said.
They should always ask for ID and should never give out their bank account, credit card or Social Security information.
The county is hoping to establish “hubs” in public facilities such as libraries and to recruit teenage volunteers to help seniors complete the Census online.
It will be rolling out a website with “visual aids,” including the county’s logo, photos of the actual mailings and versions of the Census in Spanish.
Last spring, County Executive George Latimer formed the Census 2020 Complete Count Committee.
“The mission is very simple—we want to make sure that if you reside in Westchester County that you are counted. The potential loss of dollars and representation is what is at stake here,” he said.
During the 2010 Census, Westchester’s population earned the dubious distinction of being the ninth hardest county in the state to count. Only 76 percent of households submitted responses.
Back then, the county just let the federal government “do its thing,” but decided to get proactive after uncovering flawed data, Drummond said.
As part of a nationwide effort in 2018, the county reviewed housing addresses and found 370,000—24,000 more units than were “officially” accounted for.
“If that doesn’t worry you, it worries me,” Drummond said.
Some of the units were likely empty, but even if there were only one person in each of them, that would have made the “difference in Westchester County being over, or being under, a million people. That’s huge,” she said.
The county found that seven municipalities were not complying with monthly requirements to report things like residential building permits.
“You know, there’s basements and attics. There’s second floors and first floors. Whether they’re legal or not, we don’t care, and neither does the Census Bureau,” Drummond said.
In October, it offered training sessions to get the outliers back on track.
The Census Bureau plans to hire more than 6,200 people to knock on doors in Westchester and Putnam.
“They are not necessarily 9-to-5 jobs. They are looking for people to go to people’s homes when they are home—nights and weekends,” Drummond said.
Background checks have to be made, so people should apply as soon as possible. Training begins in January.
In February, the bureau will begin counting people in “group quarters” such as prisons, assisted living facilities and college dorms.
Students who commute will have to be logged in at their residences.
In general, barriers to participation seem to be apathy, concerns about data confidentiality and privacy, fear of repercussions and distrust of government.
But, Drummond said, many want to know “what’s in it” for them personally.
When asked what would make it worth doing their civic duty, they usually mention more money for health care, fixing potholes and bettering their children’s education.
Then there are those who are unaware that the Census exists—like 20-somethings, new immigrants and visiting workers—and need to be brought up to speed.
Getting to the parents through their kids is one tactic for raising awareness, Drummond said.
Drummond said schools are being encouraged to weave lessons about the Census into subjects such as math and science—much like they did with environmental issues.
“My child came home from school one day and said, ‘Mom! Do you know how many water bottles there are in the ocean?’ That’s how we learned to recycle; our kids guilted us into doing it.”