Summit County census response rate much higher than initially reported
FRISCO — As it turns out, Summit County is not that bad at being counted.
For the past few months, a statistic has been floating around that Summit County had a 21% response rate to the 2010 census, giving the impression that Summit is severely underrepresented and undercounted.
However, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs has rejected that figure as out of context and misleading. Department officials said the census response rate is much higher when the special nature of the ski resort community — with lots of second-home owners — is taken into account. In reality, Summit’s response rate was 72%.
The drive to boost Summit County’s participation in the upcoming decennial 2020 census began in June, when the Summit County Complete Count Committee met for the first time to organize the community count. During that meeting, Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence presented findings from the 2010 census, including a claim that Summit County had only recorded a 21% response rate that year.
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She said that made boosting participation in the 2020 census of the utmost importance, given how census data is used to allocate federal funding for everything from food aid to transit funding.
A follow-up story a few weeks ago also included the 21% response figure. When State Demographer Elizabeth Garner got wind of that number, she issued a statement seeking to correct and clarify where it came from and how it does not represent actual participation.
Garner explained that 21% of forms sent to Summit County residents were filled in and returned to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those were households that did not require a follow-up visit.
However, given how many housing units in Summit County stand vacant for more than half the year, that initial response rate did not reflect the actual number of households in Summit nor the final response rate after census workers followed up.
“Since over half of your units are second homes, they counted against Summit in their response rate,” Garner wrote. “If you account for the number of second homes/vacant homes, the mail response rate was 72% for Summit.”
Garner said Thursday that the disparity in initial response compared with the actual, final response also was related to the challenges of polling a resort community.
“Ski resort communities are difficult to count,” Garner said. “It’s such a mobile population, and such a large share of units that are second homes. The census has to figure out how many units are vacant, and how many are actually being lived in to really make sure people are being accounted for. They must account for how many people are still living here during the shoulder season.”
Garner said the Census Bureau examines homes in Summit County to see if they are vacant or if they simply forgot to return the census form. The bureau sends census takers to check whether the home was occupied or vacant and discounts empty homes from the total. They also urge the census stragglers who answer the door to complete the survey and return it. That is how the 21% rate jumps to 72% after empty homes are taken out of the equation.
Garner added that of all units in Summit County that did not have a person initially respond to the census in 2010, 78% were vacant homes. That left 22% of nonresponding homes, which were actually occupied and required a follow up. The whole process makes Summit County a much more expensive place to survey compared with cities with centralized housing complexes and neighborhoods.
Garner said it is critical to avoid the impression of a very low response rate in 2010, as it might negatively affect the 2020 participation rate. It is also important to note that response rate is not the same as the percentage of the population who are counted.
“With all the information that is being released, people see this 21% number, and it seems scary,” Garner said. “It sometimes scares people into thinking, ‘Well, if they only care about 21% of us, then why should I even bother participating?’”
After being apprised of how the 21% number was erroneous when taken out of context, Lawrence was appreciative of the clarification. She said she was given that number from a Census Bureau representative in November 2018, and she had relayed it, unaware that it didn’t tell the whole story.
As far as work that’s being done now, less than 70 days from census day, Lawrence said the county’s Geographical Information System department had been instructed to verify jurisdictional boundaries in the county, ensuring housing units are properly counted in the correct geographical areas.
“We have to make sure all annexations are included, so that the population counts for the individual towns are also correct,” Lawrence said.
The Census Bureau is still hiring for the run up to the census and administration of the census itself. All U.S. citizens ages 18 and older with a valid Social Security number are eligible to apply. Census taker positions pay $20.50 an hour in Summit County. To apply for a census position, visit 2020census.gov/jobs.
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