Census targets hard-to-reach populations in Western Pennsylvania
Tucked into the folds of Westmoreland County’s landscape, Shawn Walker and Paul Teeters are two of many who are already choosing to not respond to the 2020 Census.
Walker of Coyler Avenue in Jeannette and Teeters of Chestnut Street in Jeannette live in a census tract that has an almost 26% low-response rate – a number that sends a red flag to Steve Shope, supervisory partnership specialist for the Philadelphia Regional Census Center, which covers eight states and Washington, D.C.
The rate is based on people who do not respond to the mail-in form. In 2020, residents can respond online or by phone, but if the census doesn’t get a response, workers can visit a home up to six times.
“We can’t just say, ‘Oh, you didn’t answer, we’re not going to count you,’” Shope said.
The push for an accurate count is based on the benefits of the census, which includes the allocation of congressional seats and determining how state and federal money is distributed. The U.S. Constitution requires that people be counted nationwide every 10 years.
“People often choose not to respond because they think it’s just another survey when, in fact, it determines how billions of dollars in federal funding gets distributed,” said Sheila Beasley, the Pittsburgh Partnership specialist for the Census Bureau.
Based on census counts, Westmoreland County receives about $3.3 million annually through federally funded Community Development Block Grants. The money is used for water, sewer and road infrastructure as well as for things such as sidewalks and park improvements.
Yet pockets remain where high numbers of people typically do not respond to census surveys.
With the help of the Response Outreach Area Mapper, or ROAM, local officials and census workers identified hard-to-reach populations, including parts of Jeannette, Monessen, Greensburg, Arnold, New Kensington and North Apollo.
In all, Westmoreland County has 12 tracts — out of 86 total — with a low-response score of 20% or more, Shope said.
Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have nearly five times more.
Across the state, almost 19% of people are expected to not respond to the census, according to the Pennsylvania State Data Center, a Census Bureau liaison. Those areas tend to be rural, have high poverty rates and populations of college students and children age 5 and under.
Dyllan Ortiz, a 22-year-old Arnold resident, has never been approached about the census but said he will participate if contacted.
“I think it’s important,” Ortiz said. “You got to get a general idea of the populace if you’re going to make decisions based on who lives where.”
Phyllis Ford, who lives on Riverside Drive in Arnold, has been part of previous census counts and said she will again participate in Census 2020.
“I understand the purpose of the census, but I think sometimes the census also helps our local programs, too, and helps us get money from the government,” said Ford, 62.
Teeters of Jeannette said he just doesn’t respond to things having to do with the government.
“I don’t vote, I don’t do nothing,” Teeters, 50, said seated in a wheelchair inside his living room. “I just don’t take part in nothing.”
Walker said he doesn’t respond to the census because he’s uncertain of what the numbers are used for.
A partnership program will help teach the public about the census and its benefits, Shope said, while also working with prominent people in the community to spread the word about the survey.
“The government can go out and educate people, but the determining factor is when the message comes from someone like their pastor … that’s when it becomes meaningful,” Shope said.
Rural versus urban landscapes
While Westmoreland County has a higher chance of responding to the census than urban tracts in Allegheny County, pockets of rural areas across the county are often difficult to find and access, said Brian Lawrence, deputy director for the Westmoreland County Planning Division.
“Westmoreland County kind of has a split personality in a way,” Lawrence said, adding that the western half of the county has a higher number of cities and towns.
Areas such as Greensburg and Jeannette, which are surrounded by suburban settings, can tuck away rural pockets, he said.
Using all means of communication – print, radio, advertisements, word of mouth and social media – will help rural populations learn and understand the census.
But tracts located around Pennsylvania cities such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia tend to have a lower response rate than suburban or rural tracts, according to the state Data Center.
In Allegheny County, 10 tracts in and around downtown Pittsburgh have a low-response rate of 30% or higher. Almost 50 tracts in the county have a low-response rate of 20% or higher.
“We normally don’t look at this as urban and rural,” Shope said. “We look at things as data.”
Across the state, areas around Philadelphia, Reading, Allentown and State College have tracts with higher low-response rates.
Across Pennsylvania, a single partnership program specialist can cover three or four counties, Shope said. But for more populated metropolitan areas such as Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, multiple specialists will work to spread the word about the census.
Officials are adding specialists focused on the LGBTQ community and specialists who can speak Spanish to ensure everyone gets counted in urban settings, Shope said. He added renters also are difficult populations to count.
Poverty and the census
In Westmoreland County, about 36,000 people live in poverty, including the elderly, families and kids under 18, said Tay Waltenbaugh, who recently retired as executive director of Westmoreland Community Action, a nonprofit organization aimed at ending poverty.
“I think (people in poverty) are standoffish, too, when it comes to certain aspects of the federal government,” Waltenbaugh said. “There hasn’t been a lot of success with individuals and families when it comes to poverty issues, so I think they might look at things a little bit differently.”
The ROAM map shows a correlation between poverty and a low response rate in areas such as Monessen, Greensburg and Jeannette.
One census tract around Greensburg shows a 22% chance of residents not responding, with about 26% living in poverty. A tract around Jeannette shows a low-response rate of over 23% with about 29% of residents living in poverty.
Monessen has a 26% low-response score with about 42% of residents living in poverty, the map shows.
“I think it’s important to let residents know what the census is, why the census is important, how it impacts them,” said Matt Shorraw, who was elected Monessen mayor in 2017. “If people feel that it’s a simple process that could positively impact them in the future, they may be more likely to participate.”
Through the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, Waltenbaugh is hopeful his staff can gain the trust of people they are helping and also spread the word about the census.
“The average citizen doesn’t always correlate census data to funding,” Shope said, adding that funding helps infrastructure programs and programs like Medicaid; Medicare; Women, Infants and Children, or WIC; and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Pennsylvania received almost $27 billion in federal funding toward those programs, which equates to over $2,000 per resident in the state, according to the state Data Center.
For Shorraw, who wants to receive money dictated by census, getting residents to respond is vital in terms of services the city can provide and the quality of life.
“In a way, we need to show residents that not taking the census will likely impact their everyday life in one way or another, until the next census rolls around, and that it would benefit them to participate,” he said.
While officials are working to encourage all residents to participate in the census, several homeowners between Greensburg and Jeannette are already planning to answer the survey.
“I do, generally, and I do genealogy and I look for my ancestors,” Jeannette resident Deborah Rhodes said when asked if she responds to the census. “And in the future, my ancestors may be looking for me.”
Karen Wichiowksi, a Greensburg resident, said she participates, adding that her family “tries to be good citizens.”
Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .