Mapping Where It's Hard to Count

March 20, 2020

See how the CUNY Mapping Service is helping to make sure everyone Is included in the 2020 census ... even in a time of coronavirus.

Steve Romalewski (Credit: The Graduate Center/Coralie Carlson)
Steve Romalewski (Credit: The Graduate Center/Coralie Carlson)

A few years ahead of the 2010 Census, a coalition of foundations and civil rights groups asked the CUNY Mapping Service to create a map of so-called hard-to-count areas — places where residents have low rates of responding to census forms — across the country.

That online tool proved to be so helpful to census workers and advocacy groups that a similar coalition approached the Mapping Service to create a map for the 2020 Census. The Mapping Service, part of the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center, began their work on the project about five years ago, launching a new map in 2017 in collaboration with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Since then, Steven Romalewski, the Mapping Service’s director, has been traveling around the country and making quarterly trips to Washington, D.C., to promote the tool and explain how it can be used.

Why is the Census so important? The results affect everything from political representation to more than $675 billion in government spending, including for health care, infrastructure, and schools. It’s also required by the U.S. Constitution — which is why, every 10 years, an enormous effort is made to count every single person (327.2 million and, well, counting) in the country. “Everyone counts,” Romalewski says. “And everyone needs to be counted.”

The Challenge of COVID-19

But what about the challenge posed by coronavirus, which is already wreaking economic devastation, creating vast uncertainty, and leading many people to shelter in their homes, either by choice or by government order?

“While the outbreak creates very real and serious challenges, the need for Americans to do their part and fill out their census questionnaires is ever more important and still completely manageable,” Romalewski says. “Though the challenges are new and unprecedented, self-responding is something that virtually every householder can and should do.”
Self-responding to the census — filling out the census form on your own — means you can avoid a knock on the door from a Census Bureau staffer who will try to count you and your household in person, he notes. And the Census Bureau has made it easier to self-respond: this year, for the first time, the form can be filled out online — a change that was in place before the coronavirus.

If internet access is a problem, you can call the bureau to give your responses over the phone. If you don’t self-respond by either method, eventually the Census Bureau will send your household a mailing with the paper questionnaire that you can fill out by hand and mail back.

Driving Up the Self-Response Rate

The share of households that mailed back their census forms in 2010 was just under 80 percent nationally. However, in some areas of the country, the share was as low as 50 percent. Hard-to-count areas are those with a self-response rate of 73 percent or lower, placing them in the bottom 20 percent. These areas are found in every geographic area of the country, and in every type of community: rural, suburban, and urban, Romalewski says.

Demographic groups with relatively low response rates include renters, lower-income households, individuals with English language challenges, and single-parent families. That might lead to assumptions that many New York City neighborhoods have particularly low rates of self-reporting. While some do, others defy expectations, like Washington Heights and Inwood, where rates are as high as 85 percent.

How did these neighborhoods beat the odds? “There was a concerted effort on the part of trusted messengers,” Romalewski says, such as bodega owners, PTAs, and childcare groups. Groups including New York Counts 2020 and the Association for a Better New York, whose executive director, Melva M. Miller is a Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate, are working to make sure as many people as possible self-report in this year’s census, he says. CUNY is also involved, with a team of more than 200 students going out into their communities and mobilizing peers at their campuses as part of the CUNY Census Corps.

When households don’t self-report, the Census Bureau sends a worker to visit in person, which is expensive and difficult, and also increases the chance of incorrectly counting a household’s members. Some demographic groups tend to be more undercounted than others, including people of color and children. About 2.2 million children under the age of five were missing from the 2010 Census, the bureau has reported. “Kids are the most undercounted, because people might not know how to count them or might not want to count them” — for example, in mixed households with children from more than one family, Romalewski says.

This is the first year that households will have the option of completing their form online or by telephone. The online option means that libraries will be playing a significant role, Romalewski notes, because they are located almost everywhere (the Mapping Service has mapped this, as well) and almost always provide computers and free WiFi.

The Census Bureau depends on these external groups and efforts. “They try to work closely with partner organizations that help get the word out,” Romalewski says. It is one of few efforts of its size that is both nonpartisan and involves extraordinary cooperation among various stakeholders: the federal government, community activists, grassroots organizations, and businesses. “There is a recognition that this is important,” Romalewski says. “The Census affects everyone.”