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What’s wrong with the census?

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THERE’S NOTHING FUNNY about homelessness. But you had to wonder about the photo on our front page last week of a Census Bureau worker poking around an empty factory in Greenport, looking for people to count.

Maybe nobody told him that this county doesn’t have many forgotten corners where people can seek refuge. Owners, neighbors and police usually know if somebody moves in to a vacant building. Homeless people, many of them children, are more likely to be found bouncing from family to friends until their welcome wears out. Some pass through the motel rooms the county’s emergency housing program rents; some live in their cars. But the census is looking for all of them–for all of us, too.

The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they added the requirement for the decennial census to the Constitution. Today, aside from the big-picture stuff like who lives here, the census helps determine how much federal and state aid we’ll get, and who will represent us in Albany and Washington. It also shapes policies like housing development and educational priorities, and it opens a window on the future of the nation for those who care to look.

So how come this county lags behind in terms of participating in the national headcount? The latest figures show that the county has reached a 56% “participation rate,” the term the Census Bureau uses to measure the level at which people are filling out and returning the simple census form most households received in the mail last month. By the time the 2000 census ended, the county had achieved a 63% participation rate, and that was well below the national rate of 72% and the state rate of 66%.

Right now, the Village of Kinderhook takes top honors in terms of responding to the census form, and even it trails several points behind where it was a decade ago. And while Hudson has fewer than half the people who got the forms responding at this point, it outshines the laggards in Copake, Ancram and Gallatin. But is this really a contest?

You bet it is.

Forget about the percentages for a moment and consider the factor most closely tied to the census data: redistricting. The word refers to the redrawing of election district lines, which is the reason for the census in the first place. Experts predict the census will show once again that states in the South and West have grown faster than we have, which means that New York State will lose one or more seats in the House of Representatives.

When that happens, will the 20th District, which includes Columbia County, disappear? If it did, would the county become part of the district that includes Albany and its populous suburbs, or would we get annexed to a district covering Dutchess County and parts of the New York City Metropolitan Area? The only leverage we would have in these decisions is the power of people counted by the census.

If you don’t get counted you don’t exist in terms of anything having to do with the government formulas that drive aid and services, and the formula has a number: $1,500 per year per person. If you didn’t mail in your form, you just cost your community that much federal aid next year. Multiply that by the number of other people in the community who haven’t responded, and you blew a lot of money.

Anyone who didn’t respond should shut up about high local taxes. Non-responders turn their backs on federal funds that could have offset local levies; that money will now go to places where people picked up a pencil, answered 10 simple questions and stuck the form in the mail. Is that so difficult?

There’s still hope. The Census Bureau mailed a second copy of the form last week to 15 million households. That probably includes a lot of places in Columbia County. Naturally, there are glitches. If you have a post office box rather than a street address, you will have to wait for a census worker to come calling. And there are snowbirds currently in transit as well as people who have no home. But most of the people who ignore the census have no valid reason to shirk this duty.

We can do better. Even if you have a bunch of relatives buried in the basement, your secret is safe. There’s no excuse for not participating. It’s simple. It’s an obligation that comes with living in the United States of America. It matters. Fill out the form.

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