Too Late For East End Census Count?

United States 2020 census form

The gap between the national response rate of residents having already filed a 2020 Census form, mostly online, and that of residents on the East End is rapidly growing. This problem is particularly acute in East Hampton and Shelter Island, though Southampton and Southold towns are also lagging behind.

As of the morning of April 5, the U.S. Census Bureau received a completed form for 44.5 percent of all houses in its national address registry. Contrast that figure with the 16.1 percent response in East Hampton, 20.7 percent in Southampton, 22.9 percent in Southold, and just 3.1 percent response rate on Shelter Island. Riverhead, which gets most, if not all of its messages from the Census Bureau via USPS, is much closer to the national rate, reaching 38.1 percent as of April 5.

The gap for the four East End townships that will be affected has been widening. On March 29, the national response rate was at 33.1 percent, while East Hampton stood at 9.8 percent.

The growing issue is caused by the Census Bureau’s methodology on the East End, and its apparent failure to plan for an epidemic or pandemic like COVID-19.

Most of the nation is contacted by the Census Bureau through the U.S. Postal Service, which has continued operating through the pandemic. But the postal service is not used by the Census Bureau across large parts of the East End. Instead, in an operation called Update Leave, all contact between the bureau and residents of about two thirds of East Hampton, and half of both Southampton and Southold, as well as all of Shelter Island, is done in person by Census workers.

That operation, which was supposed to begin nationwide on March 15, has been suspended as a result of the novel coronavirus.

Update Leave is employed in areas where the bureau believes there is a large number of second homes, or where mail is not delivered directly to houses.

And the crisis is not isolated to the East End. Nationally, there are about five million households that are contacted through Update Leave. That includes two large areas of upstate New York, where either part or all of entire townships are counted under the program. The response rate for most of them sits between 3 and 15 percent.

On the national level, Shelter Island and Puerto Rico have several things in common. Both are islands, entirely counted in 2020 via Update Leave, and have a current response rates well below 4 percent. But, while Shelter Island has an estimated population of a little under 2500, Puerto Rico has an estimated population of over 2.5 million.

David McMillen, of Cutchogue, which is in Southold town, said as of Sunday he had not yet been contacted to be counted.

McMillen is a statistician and former employee of the Census Bureau who went on to advise the oversight committees of the Census for both the Senate and House of Representatives. Local leaders, he said, are “overwhelmed” by COVID-19. Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman is one of them.

The impact of coping with the economic fallout from the virus is at the forefront of many residents’ minds. “Many people were living paycheck to paycheck,” Schneiderman said last week. “A lot of people don’t have money for food, money for rent.” He has been coordinating response efforts across the board to the current crisis and its effects, not just the Census, but with things like rapidly-growing food pantry lines.

“A lot of people never needed assistance in any way,” he said. “Now, they do.”

But when Schneiderman was told of the failing Update Leave Census operation, he said he became very concerned. The final numbers of the 2020 decennial Census will determine how money is spent, where money is spent, and the legislative representation of the entire East End.

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