October 23, 2021

More than just a number

S.N. Briere/Staff Reporter

Sherry Saam, of Groton, uses a computer Tuesday evening at the Groton Public Library. Libraries across the state are being utilized this year to ensure people take the 2020 census. Most people will take the census by phone or on a computer.

Sherry Saam of Groton scrolled through websites Tuesday evening at the Groton Public Library.

“I come here about four times a week,” she said, noting she and her son both like to use the computers. “My computer isn’t working right.”

That will make answering the coming 2020 census a bit more complicated, but not impossible — and she has contingency plans to complete the form the Constitution requires every 10 years of U.S. residents — citizen or not.

You count

Every 10 years, the U.S. Constitution requires a census of everyone in the nation, wherever they happen to live on April 1. You, your neighbor, students, immigrants (both documented and undocumented) — they all must be counted.

Those numbers determine how state and federal aid a community may get, and government representation at the county, state and federal levels.

You count in more ways than you can imagine. In this three-day package, here’s what you need to know:

TODAY: All the ways you can be counted: by computer, by paper, by phone. And the questions you’ll be asked.

MONDAY: Students and immigrants in Cortland will be counted, too. Here’s what will be done.

TUESDAY: From government aid, to community planning and academic research — here’s how the information is used.

The information is used to redraw legislature districts at the federal, state and county level. It determines how between $600 billion and $880 billion in federal spending is allocated, and helps planners, policy-makers and communities decide their priorities in hundreds, perhaps thousands of programs.

It has been particularly controversial this cycle, with debates over whether to ask residents whether they’re citizens amid a growing anti-immigrant environment, a $12.3 billion budget that is no more than what was spent a decade ago, to concerns about respondent confidentiality.

The census will have 12 questions — although some of the questions have additional sub-questions. A long-form questionnaire ceased after the 2000 census, said Lisa Moore, an assistant regional census manager with the U.S. Census Bureau. Details previously sought on the long-form questionnaire like occupation and educational attainment are gathered annually through the American Community Survey.

However, this year, internet access is critical to filling out the census, Moore said.

Saam said although her computer isn’t working right, she’ll still participate in the census by calling when she’s got free time at home.

“I think the quickest, easiest one is the phone,” she said.

But for those without access to either a phone or computer, the Census Bureau will rely on libraries to help get the most accurate count possible.

The process

The census process is already underway, with commercials airing telling people to prepare for the census and and census organizers and organizations beginning community outreach.

Census day is April 1, but people can begin completing the questionnaire in March — actually most people are expected to do it then, Moore said.

About 95% of households will receive notices between March 12 and 20.

“It encourages the community to go online or over the phone to complete the census questionnaire,” Moore said.

In areas where people are less likely to respond, households will get a letter invitation and paper questionnaire, the Census Bureau reports.

People will still have the option of responding by phone or computer.

Most households in Cortland and Tompkins counties — 20,051 units and 42,378 units, respectively — will get a letter inviting people to take the census via phone or online, shows the Census Bureau’s Hard to Count Map.

In Cortland County, 3.4% — or 715 housing units in Preble, Harford, Truxton, Willet, Cuyler and Cincinnatus — will get hand-delivered packets with options to take the census by phone or online.

In Tompkins County, 1.6% — or 673 housing units, including parts of Dryden and Freeville — will get a copy, hand-delivered.

“I was convinced we were going to be a hard-to-count area,” said Kayli Thompson, an aide at the Groton Public Library, who will help people through the process.

Reminders will be sent between March 16 and 24 to get greater participation, then another postcard reminder between March 26 and April 3.

After that, paper questionnaires will be sent to people who haven’t responded and another reminder between April 8 and 16.

If people still haven’t responded by the end of April, expect a census-taker to come knocking around mid-May to “engage participation,” Moore said.

The knock on the door isn’t just a one-and-done. Moore said census-takers will be out seven days a week; if they miss you the first time, they’ll keep trying.

Using the library

“Libraries are extremely instrumental in the 2020 census,” Moore said. “The whole system is working to increase awareness and increase participation.”

Thompson, at the Groton library, is part of the system to make sure everyone gets counted.

“The Finger Lakes Library System put together iPads for libraries,” Thompson said, so users can take the iPad anywhere in the library to answer the questions.

People can still use the computers at the library and privacy screens will be put in place.

“People come in to use the computers all the time,” Thompson said.

She’s also expecting people to head to the library with their letters asking what they should do. That’s when she’ll be able to provide extra information.

“I know a lot of people are worried about giving their information to the government and what they’re going to do with it,” Thompson said.

Four information sessions are being planned in Groton, and a census information center.

“So they can have it (the information) right there at their fingertips,” she said.

At the Cortland Free Library, promotional materials will be available to spread the word, Director Jen Graney said.

Also, a census-dedicated computer will be set up, which will point only to the official U.S. Census website. “This way, there will be no confusion over where to go to safely enter your information,” Graney said in an email.

Have your voice heard

The census count affects how legislature districts are drawn, at the county, state and federal levels.

At the county level, Local Law 2 of 1972, which changed the board of supervisors to the Cortland County Legislature, requires the Legislature to create a commission to evaluate the districts for equity in representation, said Eric Mulvihill, the clerk of the Legislature.

“We look to see if there has been any seismic changes in the districts,” that would require reapportionment and redistricting, Mulvihill said. “In the past, the planning department has assisted with the effort.”

The commission consists of the Legislature chairman and two legislators each from the two largest parties, both of whom the chairman, Paul Heider, would appoint.

The commission would have three months to study the data and make recommendations in the form of a proposed local law, which would then need a public hearing and would be subject to referendum.

If the law is defeated, the commission would be reactivated to prepare another law “at least 90 days prior to the next general election.”

From this “the conversation that typically comes up is the size of the legislature,” Mulvihill said.

In 2011, the county dropped to 17 legislators from 19.

The idea around doing the districts is to not split the towns “so you don’t have towns gerrymandered all over the place,” Mulvihill said, although Homer, Cortlandville and the city of Cortland require multiple districts. “On the whole, outside of the city, towns are pretty much intact. It’s about making sure everyone is represented.”

State and federal process

The process for determining representation at the state and federal level is similar.

The state should have already decided who would sit on a commission to determine state and federal representation in February, according to the League of Women Voters of New York state.

Leaders of both parties in each house of the state Legislature would each name two members, and those eight would select two more who are not enrolled in either party.

The group would have at least 12 public hearings and other meetings in June and July of 2021 on the way to recommending the new maps by September 2021.

Moore said representation isn’t the only driving force behind people’s participation in the census —money is too.

Money, money, money

The population counts affect the states’ access to $675 billion in federal and state funding, including grants, for any number of programs, Moore said. A George Washington University study suggests that figure can range up to $880 billion in 55 programs — more than $73 billion in New York in 2016, from $470,000 in Native American job training to $34.6 billion for Medicaid.

“If the roads need to be repaired, that’s going to be driven on population count,” Moore said.

That population count comes from the census. Funding for anyone on temporary assistance programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or Medicaid funding could all be affected by census data.

“Most often census data is used to prove the population warrants what they’re asking for,” Moore said. “Getting an accurate count is important.”

Facts about the census

What does the census ask?

• How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2020?

• Were there any additional people staying here on April 1, 2020, that you did not include in Question 1?

• Is this house, apartment, or mobile home? This question also has sub-questions such as whether you or someone in the house own the home or have a mortgage.

• What is your telephone number? This question is asked so that the census can follow up if any issues arise with a questionnaire.

• What is Person 1’s name?

• What is Person 1’s sex?

• What is Person 1’s age and what is Person 1’s date of birth?

• Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?

• What is Person 1’s race?

• What is the name of Person 2?

• Does Person 2 usually live or stay somewhere else? Options like they live at college or are part of the military will be available to choose.

• How is Person 2 related to Person 1?

The questionnaire will allow up to 10 people to be entered and the Census Bureau estimates it will take 10 minutes to complete.

Questions the census won’t ask:

• For your Social Security number.

• For money or donations.

• Anything on behalf of a political party.

• For your bank or credit card account numbers.

Speak a language other than English?

The online and by phone options offer people the opportunity to take the census in 12 languages. If one of the 12 languages isn’t one someone speaks, more languages will be offered via the paper form, said Kayli Thompson, the information aid at the Groton Public Library.

How to a avoid a census scam

During the census period, residents may receive suspicious looking emails or visits from people claiming to be working for the Census Bureau.

Here’s how to tell if it’s a scam.

Online: The United States Census Bureau will not send emails to request your participation.

In Person: If someone claims to be from the Census Bureau but you are unsure, check for a valid ID badge with a photograph, a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark and an expiration date. The Census Bureau will not contact you on behalf of a political party.


If you are concerned about the identity of a person visiting you in person, call 800-923-8282 to speak with a Census Bureau representative. If it is determined that the person does not work for the Census Bureau, contact the police.

For more information, including a sample questionnaire visit: 2020census.gov or flls.org/census-2020/

Source: U.S. Census Bureau