By Tim Rowland
This new decade, things were supposed to be better than they were in 2010, when enumerators suspected large numbers of Adirondack residents went uncounted by the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2020, the count is going online, and “Complete Count” committees were formed in rural Adirondack counties, determined to ferret out every last individual in a crucial decennial exercise in which missing even a few hundred people can result in lost millions of dollars in federal assistance.
But the coronavirus changed all that in a heartbeat, rendering much of the preparation useless in a world where meetings, social gatherings and publicity events are now verboten. Community-help agencies had to throw every last resource into the coronavirus fight, leaving little if any energy for census issues. Public libraries that were supposed to be on the front lines of publicity and data collection in rural Adirondack communities closed in March.
It’s not just that there was no one left to answer how rural communities are supposed to reach their people in the age of coronavirus, said one librarian; there was no one even left to ask the question.
Even before the virus made its appearance on American shores, there were concerns as the calendar turned to 2020. There were hiccups in state aid that had been promised to Complete Count initiatives; the number of required field helpers was slow to materialize; and the Adirondacks’ stubborn problem of spotty broadband persisted, leading to fears that other, competing communities nationwide with better access to technology would get stronger counts.
Then, on Jan. 20, a 35-year-old man just returning to the United States from China tested positive for COVID-19, and in two months the number of infections had soared into the tens of thousands, with New York being the American epicenter.
By then, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had essentially shut down the state, and agencies that had been racing to guarantee a complete count were now racing to provide basic human needs to hungry, unemployed and frightened New Yorkers. By the time the first forms began arriving in North Country mailboxes, the census for most had become a distant afterthought.
On March 20, Census Bureau officials held a media conference call to announce a rollback in collection deadlines, ranging from two weeks to a month, with many of the final deadlines for follow-up visits to nonresponding households moved back from July to mid-August.
But even that may be optimistic. “We don’t want to forecast what will happen,” said Al Fontenot, the bureau’s associate director. “We’re adjusting on a day-to-day basis.”
The Adirondacks is particularly dependent on census data, the basis not just of political apportionment but of some $800 billion in federal dollars that help fund vital services and projects, from fire departments to sewer lines to health care.
“Anyone who has ever written a grant relies on these numbers,” said Sarah Spanburg, an outreach librarian at Plattsburgh Public Library. Some of these initiatives, notably public sewer and water projects, are mandated by the state or federal governments, and without grant money the brunt of the costs will fall on local taxpayers, whose budgets are already stretched thin.
In Warren County, Planner Sara Frankenfeld said an undercount of just 650 individuals could cost the people close to $20 million over the course of the decade. She said the county has been aggressive in marketing the census to the public, even though promised state money has been slow to materialize.
The census has, or had, a neat-and-tidy process for its count. Residents can fill out a paper form, call in their information, or report online—whichever they feel most comfortable with. Most people with mailboxes have already received their forms, but in the Adirondacks a lot of people do not have mailboxes. A significant number of tracts in the heart of the Adirondack Park lack rural delivery, and residents get their mail at a post office box. Census forms are not mailed to post office boxes, so those residents must go online, or visit a local library with internet service to be shown how to report.
John Bernardi, president of United Way of the Adirondack Region, said a three-part initiative had been developed for the region, including public awareness campaigns, community outreach and information referrals for communities that needed help, such as arranging transportation. “We want to make sure the general public understands the importance of the census to the quality of life,” Bernardi said prior to the outbreak.
When the virus hit, priorities changed to matters concerning life and death. “Honestly, I’m not sure how we will proceed at this point on census work,” he emailed after the outbreak. “We will have to see what the next week or two brings.”
The Census Bureau, meanwhile, will soldier on, even if its ranks of community supporters have been thinned. By late spring, after residents have been given ample time to self-report, field workers are to fan out across hill and dale tracking down households that have not reported—including swaths of the Adirondacks that lack rural mail delivery. Much of the Adirondacks is designated a “hard to count” area, where counts have historically been lower and officials know they will have to go the extra mile to elicit a response.
“In the last census there was a firm belief that we were undercounted,” said Dan Palmer, Essex County manager. And knocking on doors in the best of times is difficult, because in the mountains “people take their privacy seriously.”
Some veteran census workers in the Adirondacks have achieved almost legendary status for gathering data, driving mountain roads in a four-wheel-drive pickup with an ATV loaded in the back for those hard-to-reach places, such as a storied home in Long Lake that is half house, half cave.
By the last week of March, reporting was already lagging over much of the Adirondacks, with an average response of 15% or less. Most other New York counties had already surpassed 15%, according to Census Bureau maps.
The maps also show that in some areas of the Adirondacks, more than 20% of the public lacks access to the internet, blocking them from the new, easier way of filing online. Census officials were counting on libraries to offer guidance and connectivity, but these libraries have since closed.
Even before they did, “for a lot of people it’s been on the back burner,” Spanburg said. Prior to the closures, many of the clients who showed up to use library computers were more focused on their tax returns than they were on being counted. The idea was to wait until tax season was over, and then switch computer kiosks over to collect data. That, of course, did not happen.
So libraries have had to improvise, said Anja Bouchard, a librarian for the Clinton-Essex-Franklin Library System. Library WiFi is generally strong enough to carry out into the buildings’ parking lots, she said, so residents needing an internet connection are being encouraged to park outside with their mobile devices. If the WiFi is password protected, the password is listed on the CEF website or posted to library doors.
Libraries also try to keep the issue before the public on social media, and with posters and fliers that have been provided by the Census Bureau. Still, Bouchard said, there will be no trained librarian in-house to help or answer questions. And there has been little guidance on how to proceed.
“Once COVID-19 hit, the census understandably fell off the map,” she said.
So in the Adirondacks the field work will become critical. But local officials were already worried that the political rancor oozing from Washington, D.C., would sour residents on anything government-related. And as March turned to April and the coronavirus raged, the thought of sending strangers into the woods to knock on doors seemed all the more problematic.
Another Adirondack peculiarity was also in play because of the virus. The census was supposed to gather steam just as the snowbirds and second home residents were due to return for the summer. Census officials say that people are told to list their residence based on where they spend the greatest part of the year, but as a practical matter they tend to list their residence as being the place they’re living when they report. If they’re forced to stay away from the Adirondacks—as some local counties are advising, the region is likely to be undercounted all the more.
If there is a bright side—assuming stay-at-home guidance persists—Bouchard said it’s that field workers will be more likely to find residents in their houses and available to answer questions. The virus may also give a boost to worker recruiting efforts.
Field jobs at $17 an hour (raised to $20 in some Adirondack locales where there were few takers) became more popular once virus-related layoffs began to hit. In one day in late March, nationwide, the Census Bureau reported 8,000 applicants.
Now, Adirondack census partisans are hoping that in a post-virus world, when field workers come calling, residents will be inclined to open their doors.