By Charles Elmore
The 2020 Census arrives a decade after 1.4 million folks in Florida were left out of the nation’s last official head count, according to a federal review.
Up and down the coast, communities are scrambling to avoid undercounts as census forms begin landing in mailboxes around March 12. Each missed person represents about $1,600 per year in lost funding for things like roads, schools and environmental and social programs, local officials say.
That’s one reason Briny Breezes Mayor Gene Adams is urging residents not to put off this invitation to enumeration. He is advocating a prompt reply using a method new to the nation’s census: by computer or other online device.
If people in the seaside community of mobile homes (2010 Census count: 601) run into any digital difficulties, the town is offering help.
“We are suggesting residents respond online if possible and we plan on making computers available for our residents to be able to use if needed,” Adams said.
The 2020 Census marks the first to allow responses online, as well as by mail or phone.
Both representation in Congress and serious money hang in the balance, including about $24 billion over a decade in Palm Beach County.
There were plenty of misses the last time around, according to the Census Bureau’s own follow-up study.
It figured 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. That cost the county’s communities an estimated $1.5 billion in lost funding over 10 years.
Online response promoted
The 2020 version of the once-a-decade count brings a chance to change the picture.
The census “will be taken in a very different way this time,” said Rich Bartholomew, census chair of the League of Women Voters of Palm Beach County.
“The official March census letter that will arrive at every address will have instructions on how to respond by computer and telephone. Using the enclosed key code, all residents will be invited to answer eight simple questions. Your data will be encrypted and stored for 72 years before anyone can access it.”
In Highland Beach, town officials say the mail response rate to the last census landed in the neighborhood of 90%, higher than most places in the state. The town’s 2010 Census count was 3,539. But leaders don’t want to take chances with missing anyone who should be counted this time.
The town’s commission formalized a partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau and set up a local “complete count committee,” said Terisha Cuebas, assistant to the town manager.
Outreach efforts include postcard mailers, emails, lawn signs and an on-topic table at the Spring Fling community event on March 21, she said.
Then there’s the raffle open to all residents who complete their census questionnaires to win a brunch for two, donated by Latitudes Restaurant at the Delray Sands Resort, she noted.
“Yes, the town is encouraging residents to respond online by computer, smartphone or tablet,” Cuebas said. “Additionally, the town is hosting a Census Response Night in the library from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25. During this time, the Highland Beach Library will provide free public access to computers and the internet, should any residents need assistance.”
Census officials hope the availability of online filing means more people will answer, though changing the process comes with its own set of challenges.
An oversight report prepared for Congress in February found the Census Bureau had, at a fairly late stage in the process, switched to a backup online system after the first one struggled with high-volume testing. The Government Accountability Office called it “critical” to test the backup system quickly, while also guarding against cybersecurity threats.
Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham assured the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform that his organization would be ready.
“We are pleased to report that we are on mission, on target and on budget for a complete and accurate count,” Dillingham said.
Still, the Census Bureau has fallen short of hiring goals to staff the massive counting effort in 202 of 248 area census offices, attracting 2.1 million applicants by Feb. 3 compared to a target of 2.6 million, the GAO report said. Bureau officials did not respond to questions about hiring in South Florida.
As the emphasis shifts toward online participation, people have to be careful about fraudulent attempts by third parties to grab money or personal information, the Briny Breezes mayor said.
“We are also talking with citizens about avoiding scams,” Adams said. “The Census Bureau will not send unsolicited emails and will never ask for Social Security number, bank account information, credit cards or money or donations.”
Why April 1 is important
In a region brimming with seasonal residents, travelers, immigrants and others on the move, trying to take a population snapshot can get blurry pretty fast. Civic leaders are trying to reassure people who may be hard to reach, wary of filling out government forms, or unsure whether they are supposed to counted.
The Census Bureau offers this guidance in a statement in the Federal Register: “People who travel seasonally between residences (e.g., snowbirds) will be counted at the residence where they live and sleep most of the time. If they cannot determine a place where they live most of the time, they will be counted where they are staying on Census Day,” meaning April 1.
Bureau officials noted the place where people should be counted in the U.S. Census “is not always the same as a person’s legal residence, voting residence, or where they prefer to be counted.”
The census page on Delray Beach’s website advises, “Don’t be afraid to be counted, even if you are not a legal citizen of the U.S.,” adding “no court or law enforcement agency can access your individual responses.”
Across Florida, about one in five households did not “self-respond” to the census a decade ago, meaning they did not send back mailed forms and census-takers had to go door to door, according to the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research.
Even after follow-up attempts, the Census Bureau calculated 1.4 million people were not counted statewide who should have been.
It matters if people fall through the cracks, local leaders say.
“The census can affect both funding and power,” Adams said. “The census determines how billions of dollars in federal funding flow into states and communities. It also affects power in the House of Representatives. In 2010 the state of Florida gained two extra seats and in 2020 we are expecting two more, bringing our total to 29. More votes in the House means more power for Florida to address issues and request federal funding for key projects, like sea level rise.”
Adams said he plans to set up at least four laptop computers for residents to use in the town’s community center.
The official census day is April 1, though people can respond in the weeks leading up to that.
Refusing to answer the census can result in a $100 fine. Knowingly giving a false answer can bring a $500 penalty, records show. But prosecutions have been rare and the Census Bureau has not pursued such a case since 1970, Politifact found.
Skepticism not new
Worries about the census are as old the counting effort itself.
Both President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson suspected the first count of 3.9 million in 1790 was too low, as census takers walked or rode horses and knocked on doors of people unsure why the fledgling government needed all this information.
“Our real numbers will exceed, greatly, the official returns of them,” wrote Washington.
But the count was generally accepted over time, establishing a tradition the nation would honor despite the headaches of counting not-always-cooperative people in far-flung places.
The first federal census after Florida became a state counted only 159 people in 1850 in Dade County, which then included territory that would become Palm Beach County. The statewide population was 87,455.
By 1910, Palm Beach County checked in with 5,577 residents, including 904 in Delray and 671 in Boynton, then appearing without “Beach” in their names in census documents.
A century later, Palm Beach County’s population was measured at 1.3 million, up almost 17% from 1.1 million in 2000.
But ask South Palm Beach residents if they think the census has room for improvement.
The town’s census count dropped from 1,480 in 1990 to 1,171 in 2010, with town officials concluding that hundreds of residents in two condominiums somehow got counted in another city. Snafus also dogged the 2000 count.
Census officials did not respond to a request for comment, but one of the residents apparently assigned to the wrong town was South Palm Beach Mayor Bonnie Fischer.
Before a recent meeting, she said it “absolutely” matters to get the count right in 2020.
“Big bucks involved for all towns including ours,” said Vice Mayor Robert Gottlieb. “We need every resident to respond and be counted.”
To learn more
2020 Census rules on snowbirds and other residential questions
Omissions in the 2010 Census
Oversight report on 2020 Census, Feb. 12, 2020
Counting issues in South Palm Beach
Census 2020 page in Delray Beach