NEW YORK — For the last census, in 2010, the Census Bureau sent 542 questionnaires to addresses on Grand Street on the lower East Side of Manhattan with the usual instructions to fill out the forms and mail them back.
The problem, however, may not have been that all 542 households ignored the forms, but that the forms never reached them.
So as preparations begin for the next census in 2020, the bleak statistic from Grand Street illustrates an issue that New York City officials are grappling with: making sure the mail gets where it is supposed to.
Or, put a different way, making sure that the Census Bureau has the addresses it needs — one for every household, formatted correctly.
The concern is that if census forms do not arrive at every household, the city’s population will once again be undercounted.
It is not a new worry. After the very first census, in 1790, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson complained of an undercount. In 2010, city officials found that the census had missed at least 50,000 people in Brooklyn and Queens.
Like other large cities, New York is hard to count. It has significant numbers of renters, low-income families and single people who could be missed.
After the 2000 census, the Census Bureau credited the city’s planning department with identifying an additional 150,000 houses or apartments, which were home to as many as 350,000 people — as many as in all of Honolulu or Tampa, Florida.
In 2010, the final mail-return rate for New York City was 63 percent, up from 55 percent in the previous census, while the national rate in 2010 was 74.4 percent, down from 79.3 percent in 2000.
The census planning department is working on addresses, with an eye toward ensuring that the list ultimately used by the bureau is as complete and accurate as possible.
“We’re laying the groundwork for a good enumeration,” said Joseph J. Salvo, chief demographer at the Department of City Planning.
The department expects the Census Bureau to send the city an initial address list for 2020 in a couple of weeks, with a 120-day deadline for verifying the addresses — the planning department says there are 3.6 million — and supplying missing ones.
So many new buildings have gone up since 2010 that thousands of addresses should be added, perhaps as many as 100,000, Salvo said.
Some are in neighborhoods where two- or three-family houses have been built, along with apartments in garages or basements, sometimes legally, sometimes not.
The distinction does not matter to Salvo. “We’re agnostic,” he said. “We do not distinguish between legally or illegally. We just want to make sure they are all on the list.” The addresses are compiled only for purposes of counting for the census, and the city keeps the address information it gathers on separate, secure servers not accessible by other government agencies.
He is also on the lookout for a rush of construction that will be completed by next year to take advantage of a tax-abatement program — 50,000 building permits were issued. The city wants those new buildings on the census list on the assumption that they will be occupied by the time the census materials are mailed out in 2020.
But reaching everyone is only the first hurdle the city — and, ultimately, the Census Bureau — will face. The second is to get responses back so they can be tabulated.
Response rates to many types of surveys have declined in recent years, and Salvo said that rising dissatisfaction with government could hurt the return rate on the census. The Trump administration’s approach to immigration is likely to affect the return rate in 2020 among immigrants, both those who are here legally and those who are unauthorized.
“Some people feel the census is an instrument of the government, and they don’t distinguish between ICE and the census,” said Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that enforces immigration laws. “The undocumented, or people with uncertain immigration status, or anyone with any concern about their legal status, are not going to be responding to the census.”
The census matters to the city because the count will determine how billions of federal dollars are distributed for everything from housing to bridge repairs to education. The census will also determine the state’s standing in Congress. Population shifts have reduced the state’s congressional delegation from 45 representatives in the early 1950s to 27 now, and New York state already expects to lose one congressional seat in reapportionment after the census. The concern among officials like Salvo is that in an undercount, New York could be forced to give up a second seat.
As in the past, census information in 2020 will be collected in two phases, first through the materials sent to every household and second by census takers who are supposed to visit the addresses that do not respond. Reflecting the digital age, the Census Bureau also has said its goal is for 55 percent of the population nationwide to be able to answer census questions online in 2020.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an outreach campaign to bolster participation in the census that will be called “Get Counted NYC.”
The 542 unreturned forms in 2010 went to addresses in the Sidney Hillman Houses on Grand Street, a complex named for a clothing workers’ union leader who died in 1946. Lydia Ortiz, who has lived there for 30 years, insisted that she returned the 2010 census form, despite data showing that none had come back from the initial mailing. But she also said that mail can be a problem.
“If it comes, it depends on what address they use,” she said, explaining that the complex has multiple buildings with many entrances. For example, the entrances to 500 Grand St. are known as A, B and C. The entrances to 530 Grand St. — a block away — are called D, E and F, and the entrances to 550 Grand St. have marquees that say G, H and J.
“If they don’t put the ‘F,’ it doesn’t get to me,” Ortiz said.
The newsletter for the complex mentioned the mail problem in January. It noted that mail is sorted by an automated system but added that the human touch also figured in delivery at the Hillman Houses: “If the regular mail person is not delivering, you may find your mail in another building.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service said census mailings in 2020 will carry bar codes that should route them to the right entrances in the right buildings.
Another Hillman Houses resident, Matt Gannon, said the mix of neighbors had changed since he moved to Ortiz’s building in 2011, a year after the last census. There are more families and more children now, he said.
“From the people I’ve talked to, there were older apartment owners” in 2010, when the mail-return rate was zero. “It’s entirely possible for that group that the census form wasn’t something they really paid attention to, or returned.” He is betting the return rate will be higher in 2020.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.