With the nation’s U.S. Census count deadline approaching – perhaps as soon as Sept. 30 – the City of Johnstown is lagging behind other municipalities and counties in response rate, according to the latest Census data.
Just half of the city’s estimated number of households have responded to the once-a-decade questionnaire, which could threaten to lower Johnstown’s official population – at least, on paper – and potentially leave thousands of city residents short-changed on funding allocated annually on programs such as school lunches, Head Start, housing assistance for veterans and Medicaid.
The data’s trickle-down effect even helps determine the number of potholes fixed each year in communities and where restaurant chains choose to locate.
U.S. census workers, called “enumerators,” have been traveling from home to home, working to fill in data for households when residents haven’t responded – at a time when Americans’ minds have been focused on COVID-19 and the hardships it has caused, a high-profile presidential election and civil unrest nationwide.
Many cities are turning their attentions to the once-a-decade headcount, whose looming deadline is tied up in federal court over the Trump administration’s efforts to stop the count on Sept. 30, rather than the original deadline of Oct. 21.
If counting stopped today, Johnstown would be nearly 14 points behind the 2010 “self-response,” which was 64%. Like other rust-belt cities whose rates are lagging, the results could cut the revenues those communities receive for programs many of their residents rely on.
“It’s frustrating because you look at the response (rate) in affluent neighborhoods and they are doing great. In places like Johnstown – where so many people rely on that funding for support – people have other things to worry about right now,” Johnstown Councilwoman Marie Mock said, noting that too many people “don’t realize how important this is.”
Mock said: “I think we need more time, not less.”
“It’s kind of shocking,” NAACP Johnstown President Alan Cashaw said of Johnstown’s rate. “Basically, if you followed your duty and participated, the odds are that your neighbor didn’t.”
The scenario repeated across the nation shows struggling, blue-collar cities and ultra rural communities lagging, real-time Census count data show.
Just like Johnstown, where 50% of households have “self-reported” – or participated – online, by mail or in-person to the Census, rust belt towns such as Homestead (45.3%); Youngstown, Ohio (51.9%); and York (50.9%) are all struggling.
Given that empty, blighted homes are more common in cities, that will impact response rates – but Census data showed those cities were all lagging behind their 2010 rates.
Cumberland, Maryland, was at approximately 59%.
Cambria County’s self-response rate is faring better, moving past its 2010 percentage last week to reach more than 68.6%. But while some communities, including Adams Township, Northern Cambria and Westmont, are trending near or above their previous rates, others such as Dale Borough and East Conemaugh were behind their 2010 marks.
At the same time, affluent Pennsylvania communities – such as the Pittsburgh suburbs of Franklin Park and Bethel Park – ranked in the top three for self-reporting, with more than 80% logged.
Franklin Park’s median household income was $121,661 last year – more than five times larger than Johnstown’s – a stark difference, Cashaw said.
People are responding in neighborhoods that don’t need as much help, while those that do – often those with “historically undercounted” minority populations – aren’t.
“With the way things are (in Johnstown) right now, I think a lot of homes are more concerned about the bills they receive in the mail, not their census forms,” he said.
Community-based efforts have been underway for more than a year to make sure the region – Johnstown included – responds to the vital count.
“I think because (COVID-19) kept a lot of people home through April and May, the thought was that we’d see higher response totals,” Cambria County Commissioner Scott Hunt said. “For whatever reason, we haven’t.”
As it turned out, the novel coronavirus has hampered Census awareness efforts, according to Cambria County Planning Commission Director Ethan Imhoff.
The region’s state-supported Complete Count Committee effort began a year ago, spearheaded by the Cambria County Planning Commission, local leaders and representatives from the United Way of the Laurel Highlands, Community Foundation for the Alleghenies and Cambria County Transit Authority, he said.
The group’s marketing included several TV advertisements and signs placed on CamTran buses.
But the March shutdown and state-mandated COVID-19 guidelines convinced the group to cancel planned community events throughout the city and in other communities in the months that followed, Imhoff said.
“Doing in-person events hasn’t really been easy to facilitate,” he said, noting that a visit by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s wife, Giselle, before the shutdown, was the lone exception – on March 10.
To Community Foundation Associate Director Angie Berzonski, the pandemic places an emphasis on how much census-fed funding streams are needed in the region.
The federal government awards money annually for school meal programs – but the amount wasn’t nearly enough this year, with kids at home, she said.
“Because there are still so many kids going hungry,” groups, including the Community Foundation, stepped in with funding, Berzonski said.
If federal dollars matched the demand, “our foundation could be redirecting our funds in other areas, such as philanthropy that supports quality-of-life initiatives,” she said.
Census worker data collected by canvassing neighborhoods is not yet included in the Census Bureau’s website totals.
Census enumerators are able to use door-to-door visits to quickly fill in gaps to get a head count for every home, in recent decades at a more than 99% accuracy rate, the bureau has reported.
A closer look at some of Johnstown’s neighborhoods would seem to suggest counters have plenty of work to do. Kernville’s self-response rate was about 30% as of last week, compared to the Roxbury and 8th Ward’s 64.7%.
But the U.S. Census Bureau’s Rick Buck noted that’s where response rate for cities such as Johnstown can be misleading.
In neighborhoods such as Kernville, the Census Bureau is likely seeking responses from addresses that have been vacant for years, said Buck, who works with communities as a partnership specialist in a list of west-central Pennsylvania counties, including Cambria.
In Kernville, entire rows of homes have been demolished in recent years, he said.
In some cases, businesses have taken their place, Buck said. In others, homes were replaced by green space or parking lots.
“The Census Bureau is obligated to deliver to every household,” Buck said. “But it doesn’t mean someone lives in every house.”
Johnstown Councilwoman and Kernville pastor the Rev. Sylvia King agreed.
King serves at Christ Centered Community Church, and said she has seen the Kernville neighborhood transform over the years.
“There’s a lot of properties in Kernville that aren’t houses anymore,” she said, noting that she’s neither surprised nor concerned about the neighborhood’s 30% rate. “Kernville’s going to (appear) low. We just have to trust and believe the workers deployed to this area are going to continue being diligent and will ensure the people who do live here are being counted.”
‘Afraid’ to answer
Buck noted that Kernville’s issue isn’t that unusual in cities.
Census workers have similar situations in seasonal vacation areas, such as Seven Springs and the Allegheny Forest, where “households” may actually be hunting cabins or summer getaways – and not primary residences.
That’s why sending workers door to door is so important, he said.
But Mock said she’s talked to several Census workers in recent weeks about the response levels they are getting – and their experiences have her concerned.
“Workers say they are going to houses, but people don’t want to talk or provide their names,” Mock said. “And increasingly, people are afraid to open their doors. They worry it’s someone trying to scam them or that their information will be misused.”
Officials work to remind people that the U.S. Census Bureau is prohibited from sharing individual responses with other agencies. Personal information must be kept secret for 72 years – presumably until after an individual is no longer living – by law.
“But it’s hard to reach people,” Mock said. “That’s why the media – and sharing that information – is so important.”
Buck said it takes “trusting faces” – people from the community residents might recognize – to educate their neighbors about the Census and its importance.
“When someone is delivering the message that you know and trust, people are more likely to listen,” he said.
‘There’s still time’
Grass-roots efforts have been launched in neighborhoods nationwide to find ways to grab people’s attention – and boost Census counts.
Earlier this month in Charlotte, North Carolina, an awareness parade with a caravan of cars decorated with balloons and signs traveled through under-reported neighborhoods, the Charlotte Observer reported.
In a Butte County, California, a Complete Count committee member turned his van into an ice cream truck, circulating through neighborhoods three days a week until the Sept. 30 deadline to raise local response rates.
In a move also aimed at supporting small businesses, restaurants in a Los Angeles neighborhood partnered with a local nonprofit to offer $10 meal vouchers to people who showed up and completed their Census forms.
“The most important message right now,” Buck said, “is that there’s still time.”
Cashaw echoed that message.
The Johnstown branch of the NAACP partnered with Grove Avenue United Methodist Church on Saturday to help the community’s residents complete their Census forms - as well as mail-in ballot requests and voter registration applications.
Johnstown is running behind, “but the count isn’t over,” Cashaw said.
Buck agreed. He said localized efforts such as the one in Moxham can be difference-makers.
“If you care about your community ... you can do something about it,” Buck said. “Make sure your neighbors are counted.”