‘Hard-to-reach’ communities a focus for population count
By Jamie Wiggan
rates by municipality
Below are the self-respond rates for each of Gazette 2.0s municipalities, ranked against all 2,556 statewide as of Aug. 28 (Source: US Census Bureau).
The average self-response rate across the nation is currently 64.6%, while the state is at 67.5% and the county, 70%:
McKees Rocks: 47.9
Low 2020 census reporting in area municipalities could reduce federal funding flows back to those communities.
A local chapter of the Complete Count Committee (CCC) is working to prevent this by reaching out to communities across Allegheny County through a network of libraries, churches and non-profit organizations. The goal is to increase the number of self-responding residents through community outreach and education.
Denise Zellous accordingly volunteered to turn her non-profit headquarters in McKees Rocks into a “community hub” for engaging residents in census participation.
“[I chose to do this] because of the importance of the impact that having everyone counted has on the funding we receive in the community,” she said. “Once you’re armed with the information, then you want to help… because you want your community to thrive.”
Census data is used to steer trillions of federal dollars during the 10-year periods between each count. One report conducted by George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy found that $40 billion in federal dollars was pumped into Pennsylvania during 2016 under the direct guidance of 2010 census data.
Locally, communities within the 15136 and 15204 ZIP codes are included in a list of 29 “hard-to-reach” areas identified by the CCC in Allegheny County.
According to Gregg Behr, who co-chairs Allegheny County’s CCC, households with veterans, immigrants or several young children are all recognized as being less likely to report.
Because the census model is based on household affiliation, homeless populations are also undercounted.
Economic circumstances factor in, too. Throughout Western Allegheny County, self-response rates to date remain markedly lower among economically depressed communities.
As of Aug. 28, just 48% of households in McKees Rocks, where more than 27% of residents live in poverty, were recorded as having submitted a census report. Meanwhile, in bordering community Kennedy Township less than 3% of residents live in poverty and 80% of households are recorded as responding.
The number of residents who responded by internet — 69% in Kennedy versus 30% in McKees Rocks — illustrates further disparities and highlights the importance of internet access in overall census participation.
Although the option remains to respond by phone, the Census Bureau has made the internet its default response mode for the first time in 2020, replacing mail-in surveys.
The count is overseen by the US Census Bureau, which in early spring mailed out letters to every American household with instructions for responding online or by phone.
Those who don’t respond to the original letter or several subsequent follow-ups receive visits from on-the-ground census takers; but inevitably some remain unreached and unaccounted for in the final data pool.
Through her experience running the community hub, Zellous said she has found lack of internet or telephone access to be a major obstacle. Another is “misinformation,” which she said comes in two forms: expectations that the survey is long and invasive, and a widespread belief that participation bears no effect on peoples’ lives.
Zellous helps steer residents around both of these obstacles by supplying internet and phone access and educating residents on the economic and political impact of census participation.
The impact of census data extends beyond the allocation of federal dollars. The data is also used to apportion the United States’ 435 congressional districts, which move across each of the 50 states in response to shifting populations.
In the private sector, investors routinely use census data to assess population trends before committing to a site location.
“The impact is significant,” Behr said. “We get one shot at this every 10 years.”
Behr, who describes himself as “weirdly passionate about the census,” believes census participation also feeds into a sense of community pride and belonging.
“There’s something just fundamental to building a sensibility…that as residents, we belong,” he said.
Zellous said it’s been difficult to judge the community’s response to her efforts so far. “The numbers are not as high as wewould like them to be in our area, but we’re looking for ways to increase awareness and participation,” she said.
More assuredly, she said she’s seen a definite uptick in political engagement, which she has been able to use to encourage census participation.
“People are more politically aware.”
To participate, call 844-330-2020 or go online to becounted2020.org. Note: the federal census deadline was recently moved forward to Sept. 30.