NORTHEAST PENNSYLVANIA — Wayne and Pike counties are lagging behind state and national averages in their response rates to the 2020 census. While updated technology has made it easier for some …
NORTHEAST PENNSYLVANIA — Wayne and Pike counties are lagging behind state and national averages in their response rates to the 2020 census. While updated technology has made it easier for some residents to get counted, local officials say that other factors leave rural counties at a disadvantage.
According to the Census Bureau’s interactive map, as of July 7, Wayne’s self-response rate was at 45 percent, compared to a final rate of 50.4 percent in 2010. Pike County has already surpassed its 2010 numbers, currently at 37.4 percent compared to 30.9 percent. Both counties are still notably behind PA’s overall self-response rate of 65 percent and the national average, 61.7 percent.
In Wayne County, commissioner Jocelyn Cramer describes the problem in one word: “broadband,” or internet access. A constant issue in the county, one-third of Wayne’s residents lack internet.
“A lot of direction for this year’s effort has been through automation... the internet; it obviously saves a lot of money overall on the census efforts,” Cramer said. “Having very limited access to good internet service here has really hurt us on this response rate.”
But Wayne’s setbacks aren’t solely digital. Cramer also said that she and the other commissioners recently learned that the Census Bureau does not send mail to P.O. boxes. She said that since the 2010 census, the county has updated many residents’ addresses, “but we still have areas where people just use P.O. boxes, so those people never got anything in the mail.”
In Pike County, which has one of the lowest response rates in the state, planning director Mike Mrozinski, for whom this is the fourth census he’s worked on, said the cause is “relatively unknown.” However, the county “speculates” that it has to do with addressing. In addition to the P.O. box problem, Mrozinski said that households in residential communities with “their own sort of post office” did not receive the standard census mailer. And some residents, he said, may simply not want to be counted.
“Many people that move to Pike, Wayne and Monroe counties—they come here to live in the woods, to live remote, to limit interaction... staying away from governmental activities,” he said.
[Residents can complete the census online at www.census.gov or by phone at 844/330-2020.]
Cramer and Mrozinski both suspect that part-time residents, like those who live here over the summer months, struggle to understand whether they should be counted here or at their other residence. According to the bureau’s website, people who live at more than one residence during the week get counted at the place where they live most of the time. People without a usual residence, however, are counted where they are staying on Census Day, April 1.
None of these issues are new for county officials or the Census Bureau, but the addition of a global pandemic magnified the obstacles for the 2020 count. Mrozinski said that “COVID could not have come at a worse time.”
“Because we’re in this pandemic, we’re not at events where we talk about it or it’s being advertised, there’s just a real lack of exposure,” Cramer said. Mrozinski said that his office has stacks of census handouts that have not been handed out to residents.
The pandemic also temporarily stalled the bureau’s usual door-to-door efforts which can help reach residents without internet access or those who did not receive a mailer. Those efforts have since resumed.
Low response rates can cost counties big in future federal funding. According to the Wayne County Commissioners, over the next 10 years, the county loses $2,100 in potential funding per resident who does not fill out a census. Cramer has been referring to this year’s count as the “pothole census.”
“Locally, it is helping our schools, it is helping our fire departments, it’s helping our emergency response, it’s helping infrastructure,” Cramer said.
Mrozinski said that the count affects just about everything they do in the planning office, and noted that Pike is “stuck” with whatever federal funding the census justifies for the next 10 years.
Censuses can also play an important role in determining the results of future elections, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania. According to the Mitchell Hamline Law Journal, the data the census provides on shifting populations inform the reallocation of congressional seats per state, impacting each state’s weight in the Electoral College.
Wayne County was able to receive some funding for advertising and has invested in billboards, newspaper ads and posters—which Cramer said they’ve directed especially in areas with high numbers of P.O. box addresses, like Prompton.
Mrozinski said that Pike’s complete count committee is “leaving no stone unturned” in an effort to raise awareness—reaching out to senior groups, libraries, faith-based organizations, school districts, municipalities and the Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau. It’s also making a push on social media, featuring interviews with local politicians and business owners about the importance of the census.
“We are being very aggressive, so hopefully our work is paying off, and it seems to be paying off already,” he said, noting that Pike is one of the few counties in PA to have already surpassed its response rate from 2010. “Even though our numbers are low, we’re doing better than we did last decade.”