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Health Crisis Hurts New York Census Response Efforts

The state, which was hard-hit by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has seen less than stellar response to the U.S. Census. Despite a push to garner responses online, the state still ranks 43rd nationally.

(TNS) — New York's state and local government leaders spent months — years, even — preparing for the 2020 census, knowing that a more complete population count results in more federal funding and representation.

Then came the coronavirus.

New York, hit harder than any other state by the virus at the center of a global pandemic, is trailing behind most other states when it comes to completing the U.S. census this year, according to federal data.

Through Wednesday, just 48.8% of New York households had self-completed the population-counting form by mail or online, well below the national rate of 54.6%

The completion rate ranked New York 43rd among states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The coronavirus outbreak has complicated efforts by government leaders to reach people in hopes of encouraging them to complete the census, in part because legacy media and social media have been consumed by the latest virus developments.

But the counting continues, and state and local officials know the results will have an long-term impact. Depending on the count, New York could lose as many as two congressional seats in 2022.

New York's population has been on the decline, which could ultimately reduce the state's sway in major issues in national policy.

"It's an extraordinarily difficult time to be doing the census, and I don't know what we're going to get," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said April 9.

"But that's not a New York issue really, that's a national issue, but I think it's highly problematic."

The USA TODAY Network New York spoke to local leaders throughout the state to see how their census efforts have gone so far.

Here's what we discovered.

High participation rates among WNY counties ...

What region of the state is having the most success getting its residents to respond?

Look west.

Erie County, home to Buffalo, has the highest self-completion rate among New York's 62 counties, with 59.1% of households responding as of Wednesday. No. 2 is Niagara County, Erie's neighbor to the north.

Also ranking in the top 10 is Monroe County (home to Rochester) at No. 7 with 56.8%, according to the Census Bureau.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz attributed his county's high response rate to the work of its Complete Count Commission.

Participation rates are particularly high in suburban communities, too.

Hastings-on-Hudson and Croton-on-Hudson in Westchester County tied for No. 2 among New York's cities and villages with 71.4% participation as of Wednesday.

Sherrill, Oneida County, was No. 1 at 71.9%.

"We've been proactive in promoting it to the residents with bilingual emails and phone calls, and we've also promoted it in the village newsletter," Croton Mayor Brian Pugh said.

... but participation remains low in cities

Participation in the state's largest cities is far lower than the state rate.

New York City, home to roughly 8 million of the state's roughly 19 million, has seen 43.8% of households self-respond.

Even in Erie County, Buffalo — the state's second-most populous city — had 42.2% respond so far. In Rochester, 40.6%.

Among the state's "Big Five" cities, Yonkers had the best luck: 47%.

In Rochester, officials are hoping an upcoming advertising campaign will help boost participation after the state's initial waive of PSAs largely focused on downstate and the Buffalo area.

The city and Monroe County each pledged $50,000 to the effort and local foundations have more than matched the effort, according to Alex Yudelson, who leads Rochester's census coordinating committee and serves as chief of staff to Mayor Lovely Warren.

Local media are matching airtime and digital and well as print space.

Poor Internet access? Poor response rate

One of the reasons for a poor early response rate in the cities: A smaller percentage of homes with high-speed Internet access.

Of the households that have responded so far in New York, 85% have done so via the Internet, according to census data.

So in areas of the state where Internet access is limited, census participation generally appears to have been lower.

Take Rochester, for example.

A recent Rochester City School District survey found that 1,700 high school students, or 55% of all students surveyed, did not have Internet access at home. Response rates in Rochester's predominately low-income census tracts is less than 30%

In Buffalo, local leaders had engaged with libraries to encourage those who rely on the facilities for Internet access to complete the census.

But with the coronavirus shutting down libraries throughout the state, that plan is on hold for now.

The three counties with the lowest participation rates — Essex, Sullivan and Hamilton, all with participation rates below 25% — are all largely rural counties with areas of spotty or nonexistent broadband Internet service, according to the state.

Don't want someone knocking on your door? Act now

In at least one way, fear of the coronavirus has actually helped encourage people to respond early to the census.

What is the surest way to make sure a census taker — someone who is traveling door to door in the middle of a pandemic — doesn't have to come to your home for a chat?

By self-completing your census form online, by mail or by phone.

Poloncarz said that message has "really engaged the public to respond online more than we thought it would."

"People are responding to that message: Do it now, do it online, do it for our community — and oh, by the way, that prevents a stranger showing up at your door after showing up at other peoples' doors, which is kind of the antithesis of what you want in a situation when you're trying to stem the spread of the coronavirus," he said.

Census takers will begin visiting homes that have not completed the form on May 27.

What to do about college students?

The census asks you to count everyone living in your home as of April 1.

Under normal circumstances, that would mean thousands of college students would be living in their dorm room or off-campus housing.

Now, with colleges across the state sending their students packing as the coronavirus outbreak picked up steam last month, that means those students will be living in their permanent home.

But where should they be counted?

According to the latest guidance from the Census Bureau, college students should be counted where they would have been living April 1 under normal circumstances. For many, that's at their school.

That's a big deal for many regions of the state who have a large influx of college students each year, which could influence how many seats an area has in Congress and the state Legislature.

For example, there are 19 colleges and universities in the Greater Rochester area with a combined enrollment of more than 81,000 students.

This story was updated to include the latest U.S. Census guidance regarding college students.

©2020 Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.