October 18, 2021

Census: It’s a gold mine of info with many uses

A host of good journalism lies nestled in the numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, and reporters and editors at the Cortland Standard make use of it daily.

Just notice Cortland’s south side. For years, people said it was the other side of the tracks of Cortland, New York. It was a place where You Didn’t Want To Be.

It was also, census data show, a load of poppycock.


You count

This story is part of our three-day package covering the 2020 census. If you missed a day and want to catch up, or want to see what we have coming for day three, visit our landing page here.


The census, and its annual cousin, the American Community Survey, are the single-largest, most-accurate measures of a community. And not just a community, but its neighborhoods, too. That’s why, a few years ago, I spent tens of hours pulling data from the Census Bureau website into a series of spreadsheets.
It told me that since 1990, much of Cortland’s south side was gaining in household income faster than the rest of the city; it was gaining in educational attainment, too. It was aging while the city as a whole was getting younger.

One might even say it was beginning to gentrify. And in fact, one particular census block had gentrified. It aged nearly 20 years in as many years. That’s weird.

Something boiled my hard drive before I could turn raw data into a news report, but theories abound to explain a revival of the south side. Perhaps investments there in refurbished housing about 15 years ago sparked a renaissance, but the resurgence began before the housing project. Perhaps it comes from the spread of off-campus housing from the college. But if that were the case, we’d expect the median age to drop, not rise.

All that census data tell a story about the south side. And all of it was because people like you took the time to fill out a brief series of questions in the decennial census, which (I hope) you’ll do in just a few weeks.

What else you can learn from the U.S. Census Bureau:

n Poverty in Cortland County, at 14.7%, is nearly identical to the national average of 14.6%. But the poverty rate in the city of Cortland is nearly 24.4%. What’s behind that? It’s a good working theory that people in need can’t afford transportation, so they cluster where transportation is cheapest, rents are lowest and help is closest. But that’s just a theory the census and survey numbers support.

n The median age of the city is 27.9, making it a city full of children compared with the rest of the county at 36.2, and the nation at 37.8. Thank SUNY Cortland. That’s a lot of 20-year-olds to bring the median age down. That number has policy implications to everything from the type of businesses young people frequent, to the types of crime we can expect, to the types of transportation the community needs. It means different considerations for planning and zoning than, say, Norwich, which is similar to Cortland but without the college.

n Cortland County is 95.1% white; 1.5% black; 0.8% Asian and 1.7% of its residents say they are mixed race. The nation is 72.4% white; 12.6% black; 4.8% Asian and 2.9 of mixed race. Wow, is Cortland white. What stories can that tell? How about what it’s like to be a minority in this community? How about how difficult it can be to recruit minorities to employment here? What’s the possibility for racism, intentional or through ignorance, because people here don’t have the routine access to those cultures?

All those stories have origins in census data.

We use that information all the time, but you can, too. Census data are easily available at either www.census.gov or factfinder.census.gov. The first website is everything the Census Bureau has; the second reconfigures the interface to focus on individual communities. Both are gold mines for journalists, or anybody who seeks to understand a community.

As a journalist, I want to give you the most accurate information I can. The census is the most accurate demographic information about this community, this state and this nation. You make that happen when you take part.

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Todd R. McAdam is managing editor of the Cortland Standard. He can be reached at tmcadam@cortlandstandard.net.