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Delaware County News Network: As Census winds down, officials scramble to have every resident counted

 As the end of the federal Census data collection approaches on Sept. 30, Delaware County municipalities are pulling out all the stops to get their residents counted - even bringing in super heroes.

 The Census is a snapshot of the country that determines how many publicly funded budgets and projects receive money for the next ten years – everything from how many students get free lunches to allocations of funds for roads and bridges, hospital services and education to how congressional seats are apportioned.


The overall self-reported Census response rate in Delaware County is just over 71 percent; communities that need the most federal dollars tend to see lower response rates.


“We still have work to do,” said Joanne D. Craig, vice president for programs at The Foundation for Delaware County which has been working with Delaware County to get everyone counted. “Many census tracts in the county are still nowhere near the response rate we need them to be. Time is running out to ensure a complete count. Just a one percent under-count could cost Pennsylvania $400 million annually. Here in Delaware County, we could lose millions of dollars in funding for education, health care, our roads and more.”


Census enumerators have been banging on doors to try and bring that 71% number much higher, according to Michael Molina, recruiting manager for the Census, based in Reading and covering Delaware County.


“When you factor in Census takers knocking on doors, Delaware County is well over 90 percent,” said Molina on Thursday. “We’re almost done and we expect a really good count for both Delaware County and the whole Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”


Molina said there were a number of locations in the county where the self-reporting rate lagged around 50 percent, including Chester, one of the two spots that he said need some work.


In Chester, city Councilwoman Elizabeth Williams has organized a caravan that spent the week going around the city to locations to improve the response rate. City officials joined 8-10 census enumerators in locations such as the Martin Luther King Apartments, the Chester Bennett Homes and Chatham Estates.


“The Census suggested this. Reading did this a month ago and it was a success,” said Williams. “It’s important to have everyone counted, as an undercount would cost the city in revenue. When you do an estimate, you make my city lower in that count. That’s not a true count, you guessing. I don’t need no guessing.”


Williams, along with other municipal employees, knocked on doors as the Census employees spread out to other homes. When she met someone who hadn’t finished the Census, she brought in a Census taker to ask the nine questions, which only took a few minutes.


Williams said most residents are understanding.


“I ask people if they filled out the Census. When they hesitate, I know they didn’t do it,” said Williams. “Then we get the Census taker.“


Williams said having local officials and residents taking part of the caravan has been helpful.


“I think the door knocking is better. People in the community know us. They know us out there. It makes a big difference.”


On Thursday, they visited the Wellington Ridge, managed by the Chester Housing Authority, and they brought along a friend to help - "The Black Panther." The superhero (actually the Rev. Dr. William Brown) certainly brought out smiles with everyone wanting to have their photo taken with him.


At least one Census enumerator, who didn’t want to be named because they aren’t permitted to speak with the press, said the work is interesting. He said while most people are understanding, some are certainly suspicious.


“It’s like vaccinations. Some, you are just not going to convince them. And it’s both sides of politics,” he said. “The liberals say, ‘You’re only doing this to get the illegals;’ the conservatives, ‘You’re only doing this to know where my guns are.’”


“The Census has been the top priority since we got here [since the new mayor was elected],” said Alison Dobbins, Upper Darby Township special projects manager. “We’ve got lawn signs going up in multiple languages all over the township, banners hanging from the 69th Street bridge, lots of outreach to local businesses. We’re really trying to pull the numbers up in areas that are lower performing at this time.”


Dobbins said the lowest performing tracts in the township have seen a 50 percent response rate and the recent change in the date of the end of the census from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30 has made things challenging.


“Helping people understand you don’t have time to wait, and understanding the new deadline, is part of our messaging,” Dobbins said. “The township has been focusing on person-to-person conversations with residents in lower response tracts.”


“The mayor has food distributions twice a week in two locations. We spend time talking to people as they are waiting in line for the food, explaining the importance of the Census, explaining that knowing how many people live here helps us advocate for getting the free food boxes,” said Dobbins.


The township has placed yard signs, written in multiple languages, around area streets to encourage residents to sign up.


Dobbins said they have also worked with the school district to have laptops and hot spots available for people to complete the Census on the spot as they came to pick up free lunches the school district provided over the summer.


The township and school district also partnered on a poster contest theme, “If you live here, you count here.”


“Upper Darby has a large immigrant population. Part of the challenge we have is in other countries, a government form like the census would only be completed by citizens,” said Dobbins. “They see it as a government form.  ‘I don’t have to do it’ or ‘I should not do it.’ We’re helping people understand, ‘No - if you live here you have to do it.’”


“This year is a clear demonstration of the need for good numbers. A lot of the programs that we are applying for, federal funding such as the CARES Act, are based on our numbers and demographics of Upper Darby,” said Mayor Barbarann Keffer. “We have a program called ‘Make Upper Darby Count.’ We’ve gotten a lot of buy-in from community groups and faith-based groups. COVID has really made us scramble and be more creative in how we’re doing outreach.”


Lansdowne Mayor Anthony Campuzano said local officials are also trying to get the word out to get as many residents counted.


“We’re probably a little under what we were ten years ago, percentage wise, so we’re concerned about that, particularly in one area (of the borough) and we’re pushing to catch up,” said Campuzano. “Ten years is a long time. We want to make sure we stay at least where we are and not go backwards. We’re going to put out some door knockers throughout the town to urge people because it is so easy to do. You can do it online.”


Campuzano said they’ve had some people knocking on doors and giving out postcards


“The problem we’re run into this year is the COVID,” said Campuzano. “People’s minds are elsewhere - safety, some people are out of work. This kind of took a back seat to that. That’s why we’re doing everything we can to get the word out to Lansdowne and what it means financially to the borough.”