EDITORIAL: Down for the count?

ATTENTION COLUMBIA COUNTY residents. The inhabitants of downstate New York, affectionately known here as “city people,” would like to thank you for the money and the political power you are about to give them.

By the end of next month you either will, or will not, have participated in this act of unintentional generosity. Those county residents who participate will tell us they were too busy, too misinformed or too frightened to stop this pending giveaway. But you can be sure they will complain about it after it happens, unaware that they played a role in surrendering what was rightfully ours.

Some of us who live here believe that federal funding and representation in Congress should be distributed in ways that give us our fair share. So what’s it say that fewer than half the households in the county contacted by the 2020 U.S. Census have filled out the census form online, by the mail or on the phone. One thing it says is that more than half of county households have yet to be counted, and that could hurt us all.

The Constitution says that every 10 years the government must count everyone living in the United States. The result determines how many members of the House of Representatives each state will have. The census results also help determine how much federal aid is allocated around the nation. The aid total was $689 billion as of 2015.

Is this a good way to cut the federal budget? No. The money will go somewhere, but less of it will come here if the census is inaccurate.

We’re talking money for roads, bridges, school nutrition, Medicare programs, Pell grants for college students, special education and foster care. The list goes on. We leave some of our share on the table for each uncounted household.

The Census Bureau website has an interactive map of census response rates nationwide. Columbia County has a rate of 49.8% of people responding. By contrast, Nassau County on long Island has a rate of 69.4%. Sure, Nassau County has a much larger population than Columbia County. But Nassau is counting more of its population. So it stands to receive more funding per person than we do.

Then there’s the process of redrawing the boundaries of congressional districts as well as districts in the state legislature based on the new census figures. It’s likely that the State of New York will lose one or two seats in the House because other states have grown faster than we have. The results can produce gerrymandered districts that favor parties but not necessarily voters.

The effort to achieve an accurate headcount in upstate New York faces lots of obstacles. Chief among them is the lack of high speed internet service. That makes it harder for people with poor service (or none) to participate in the census. If you can get to a computer the official website is 2020census.gov .

It didn’t help that the Trump administration has been trying to undercut the constitutional requirement to count everyone, regardless of citizenship. But the count isn’t over yet and there is brief opportunity left to gather more census data here in Columbia County.

Despite the pandemic and the administration’s mischief, which shortened the time available for the traditional house-by-house census enumeration, census employees are out on streets and porches talking to people who have not responded.

They have government identification. They are supposed to observe social distancing. They are not police. The information they gather is private. It may not be used in any way that reveals a respondent’s identity. It’s a federal law.

Sadly, some folks worry that the government will find a way to get to it anyway. That’s not an unreasonable fear. But it is being collected in good faith and it produces facts about how many of us live here and how we’re faring in these perilous times. These facts matter even if the government continues to invent its own “facts” whenever the truth is inconvenient.

Those of us who have already responded to the 2020 Census have one more task. Until September 30 we’ve got to ask everyone we encounter: Have you filled out a census form? If not, give that person the website or the phone number, 1-844-330-2020. If we don’t want to give away money or representation, we need these facts to be known.

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