Snowbirds pose a challenge for beachfront destinations in the 2020 census

Ken Phillips walks on a snow-covered beach at 2nd Avenue in Cape May, N.J., Thursday, Feb. 26,  2015. (AP Photo/The Press of Atlantic City, Dale Gerhard)

Ken Phillips walks on a snow-covered beach at 2nd Avenue in Cape May, N.J., Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. (AP Photo/The Press of Atlantic City, Dale Gerhard)

Snowbirds may have left the Jersey Shore for warmer waters already, but U.S. Census employees and local municipalities still want them to fill out 2020 census forms in the state.

Cape May County is home to several beachfront destinations, as well as a population of over 92,000 people that remain after the hundreds of thousands of summer visitors leave.

Many of those permanent residents are seniors who want to avoid the region’s cold winters, said Leslie Gimeno, director of the county’s planning department, who is also one of its census outreach employees.

“Many of these Cape May County residents are retired, and they spend significant parts of the season in Florida,” Gimeno said. “So they may not be here in the county on April 1.”

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If they’re not at their properties and don’t have their mail forwarded to their temporary addresses, these residents might miss important reminders to fill out the census.

Counting people who live in multiple places — think snowbirds, children splitting time between separated parents, or college students — poses a particular challenge to the census every decade.

These populations risk being counted twice, if they fill out forms in two locations, or not at all. In either case, municipalities are left with inaccurate federal funding.

At stake this time around: congressional representation and $675 billion in annual federal funds to be distributed across the country.

In 2010, Ocean County begged its seasonal residents to fill the form out accurately, especially if they lived in New Jersey for most of the year.

Snowbirds need to fill out census forms from each of their residences, but make clear which place they spend the bulk of their year. Simply ignoring reminders, said Lisa Moore with the U.S. Census Bureau, could leave the agency under the impression a family simply forgot to fill out the form.

Because the Census Bureau can’t assume that a particular property belongs to a snowbird, a federal worker will be sent to the property, smartphone in hand, with a survey fired up and ready to go, said Moore.

“Every address in our frame has to have a response at the end of the day, or we’ll use administrative records as needed,” Moore said. She added that going off old records could lead to an inaccurate count.

In 2010, Cape May County had a 62% self-response rate, the lowest of the 21 counties in New Jersey. That means workers had to be sent to the remaining addresses to take stock of the number of people living there.

This year, census workers, county officials and business leaders are working hard to avoid a repeat of 2010.

Gimeno, leader of the planning department, has been working with libraries, the Department of Aging and faith-based organizations in an effort to get information to seasonal residents as early as possible.

The bulk of the seasonal populations live in the barrier islands, according to Gimeno.

“[We’re] making sure that we work with our municipalities to encourage residents to respond and have their mail forwarded if they happen to be away,” she said.

John Kelly, with the Cape May Chamber of Commerce, said the group wants to get local business leaders to get the word out to their employees and customers. The chamber has hosted information sessions and has a link to the census on its website.

“With everyone being counted, we’re much more likely to get funding on important things like schools and perhaps infrastructure … which trickles down to economic development,” he said.

Census workers are also hoping that live tracking, a new tool in the bureau’s arsenal, will encourage hard-to-count populations to self-report.

“You’ll be able to see response rates on a daily basis starting March 20,” said Moore. “The public will be able to see how well is the community really responding … We’re going to be able to know how well we’re doing ahead of time.”

Moore said that kind of information will also help volunteers know where they should direct their efforts. With the census available online for the first time, as well as over the phone and in paper form, she’s optimistic that there will be a higher self-response rate.

Right now, Cape May County is ramping up census worker recruitment efforts. Just this month, the bureau raised the hourly wage from $17.50 to $20 an hour. It’s attracted more than half its goal of 1,000 applicants.

Bureau recruiters are flooding public spaces looking for workers, and a $500 million ad campaign is scheduled to run on television, on radio and in print reminding people it’s time to be counted.

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