By Charles Elmore
With a sped-up 2020 U.S. Census deadline fast approaching Sept. 30, 11 towns and cities along Palm Beach County’s southern coast risk what one mayor calls a “10-year hurt” as their response rates lag behind U.S. and Florida averages.
As of Aug. 23, response rates ranged as low as 42.4% for households in South Palm Beach, with Ocean Ridge and Highland Beach also under 50% and all 11 trailing Florida’s average of 60.9%, federal records showed. The U.S. average was 64.2%.
Lantana stood at 52.5%. Its lowest response levels came in the town’s easternmost census tract in its Hypoluxo Island neighborhood, where the rate was 41.4%.
The response snapshot can change with each passing day, but the stakes do not. Hanging in the balance is funding estimated at $1,600 lost annually for each person missed, for roads, schools, environmental and other programs, not to mention Florida’s chances to gain more seats in Congress. The effects last for a decade.
Lantana Mayor Dave Stewart had a message in an Aug. 24 meeting for any residents who have not acted because they don’t care or think it is not important.
“It’s going to hurt bad,” Stewart said. “It is a 10-year hurt, that’s what people don’t understand. We’re stuck with those numbers for 10 years.”
Among other enticements, Lantana is raffling off a 65-inch TV for residents who show proof of responding to the census.
“Our message to residents is RESPOND NOW,” Nicole Dritz, Lantana’s development services director, said in an email. “Don’t wait for the Sept. 30th deadline. If our residents respond now to the census, it will yield a favorable response rate for the town.”
A federal review concluded about 94,000 people who should have been counted in Palm Beach County, or 7.2% of its population, failed to make it on census rolls in 2010.
In an eventful 2020, it’s not immediately clear to local officials how much about the response rates can be explained by disruptions related to COVID-19, or seasonal residents who wound up in other places during the pandemic, or immigrants wary of being counted, or residents who are here but just forgot or did not bother.
“It’s hard to say at this time what impact COVID-19 will have on the reporting since everyone is trying to navigate these new waters,” Dritz said.
As of Aug. 23, Boca Raton showed a 60.8% response rate, within an eyelash of the state average.
“As a city we’re not lagging, but I’d prefer we be leading,” Mayor Scott Singer said. “That’s why the city has continued to communicate the importance of responding. It takes a minute online and will avoid the need for enumerators to visit your home.”
The 2020 census marks the first to allow wide-scale responses online as well as by mail or phone, but that had not raised overall participation rates by late August in southern Palm Beach County.
Things got even more urgent when the Census Bureau moved up the deadline for all self-responses as well as field visits by census workers to the end of September, a month earlier than previously announced.
“We will improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness,” U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in a statement Aug. 3. “Under this plan, the Census Bureau intends to meet a similar level of household responses as collected in prior censuses, including outreach to hard-to-count communities.”
U.S. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer questioned why officials were “rushing the census count in the middle of a pandemic” and called for an investigation into possible political pressure from the Trump administration. At a national level, Democrats have expressed concern that immigrants, lower-income residents and others might get undercounted on a faster timetable. At least one lawsuit by a coalition of urban groups has sought to extend the deadline.
But in South Florida this year, relatively affluent coastal communities are also struggling to reach their 2010 response rates.
Highland Beach, for example, showed a 45.6% response rate by Aug. 23, compared to 49.8% in 2010, according to 2020census.gov.
Census officials did not respond to requests to discuss how well they have met local hiring goals for workers to check on non-responsive households, or whether any problems have occurred with handling responses online.
An oversight report prepared for Congress in February noted the Census Bureau had, fairly late in the process, changed to a backup online system after the first one struggled with high-volume testing.
Whatever the reasons, response rates in the region have lagged.
With little more than a month to go, Delray Beach (51.8%) trailed its final 2010 response rate (61.3%) by nearly 10 points.
There’s still time to change the numbers and things could look different as September unfolds.
But as of Aug. 23, Briny Breezes (54.2%), Boynton Beach (58.7%), Gulf Stream (54.2%), Hypoluxo (50.9%), Manalapan (50.2%), and Ocean Ridge (48.2%) had yet to match their final 2010 self-response rates.
Mary Thurwachter and Mary Hladky contributed to this story.
Check census response rates in your town:
A statement about why census deadlines were moved one month earlier: