Davis: Census Shortfall Could Cost Chatham $144M

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Municipal Finance

A U.S. Census worker set up shop at the transfer station last weekend to answer questions and help people respond to the census. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM If you haven’t completed the U.S. Census yet, Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis has 144 million reasons for you to do so.

“It is important to fill out the census not for today but for the future,” she said. The town stands to lose $2,400 per resident who does not answer the census. In all, 6,000 year-round residents bring the town $14.4 million in federal funding annually, amounting to $144 million over the next decade. But as of early this week, only 36.7 percent of residents had responded to the census, which also determines an area’s legislative representation.

At 36.7 percent, Chatham has one of the lowest census self-response rates in the state, and is ranked 282nd out of the 295 towns and townships in its category in Massachusetts.

Orleans has a total self-response rate of 46.1 percent and is ranked 271st in the state, and Harwich has a rate of 49.9 percent, and is ranked 266th.

“Federal funding for our town for the next 10 years will be substantially impacted and thus put more financial onus on the taxpayers for programs that would be typically supported by those monies – monies lost due to a low census count,” Davis said.

Before data collection ends on Sept. 30, the town is working feverishly to boost those numbers. Last weekend, a census worker staffed a “mobile questionnaire assistance” station at the transfer station, and another worker will likely be there on Sunday, Chatham Executive Secretary Shanna Nealy said Monday. Channel 18 has been running public service announcements promoting the census, and Town Manager Jill Goldsmith has included the message as part of her emailed updates to the community. Numerous signs, in Spanish and English, have been posted on town properties throughout the community.

“I emailed all town committee chairs asking them encourage their committee members, families, friends, neighbors to fill out the census,” Nealy added. The council on aging has sent automated calls encouraging seniors to be counted, and Director Mandi Speakman has also reached out to several local nonprofit groups asking them to email a reminder to their members. The Monomoy Regional School District has sent an email reminder to Chatham parents, and Nealy has posted the message on Facebook as well.

The large number of seasonal homes on the Lower and Outer Cape likely helps account for the low self-response rate.

“It’s certainly understandable,” said Jeff Behler, regional director of the New York Census Center, which covers New England. There are likely seasonal residents who live part-time on Cape Cod and don’t report here, possibly out of fear of being counted twice. But Behler said the census is also a count of housing units, not just people.

People who live in multiple places throughout the year should count themselves at the address where they live and sleep most of the time, and if they split their time evenly between two or more places, they should report where they were staying on April 1, 2020. A census response is required from every property.

“A lot of people don’t think about filling out a census for their second home or vacation home or summer rental,” Behler said. But the census aims to verify homes that are not occupied but could be. “It’s important to know how may housing units are available to be occupied in a particular area,” he said.

Part-time residents are encouraged to visit www.my2020census.gov, then enter the Census ID or address for their secondary property. Enter “0” for the number of people living at this property, hit “Next,” and when a “soft error” occurs, click “Next” again. Select “No” when asked to confirm that no person lives at this property, and for the primary reason, choose “Seasonal.”

Behler said the Census Bureau anticipates low reporting of seasonal homes, and then uses a formula to predict the number of second homes in an area. The low self-response rate is expected in communities like the Lower Cape, he said. In the last census in 2010, Harwich’s total rate was 49.9 percent, and Orleans’ was just 24.2 percent.

For year-rounders and others who are still in town but haven’t answered the census, a census taker will be visiting.

“We end up getting them counted when there’s workers out there knocking on doors,” Behler said. And if a seasonal resident is double-counted for some reason, a process is in place to find and remove that duplication, he said.

Before data collection ends next Wednesday, Davis urged people to log on at www.my2020census.gov.

“It takes less than 10 minutes to be counted,” she said.