In rural America, census takers relied more on neighbors

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People walk on the street, Monday, April 26, 2021 in New York. The once-a-decade head count of the United States shows where the population grew during the past 10 years and where it shrank. New York will lose one seat in Congress as a result of national population shifts, according to census data released Monday. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In Alaska, West Virginia and other mostly rural states, census takers relied more on the word of neighbors, landlords and others for information about a home's residents. In New Jersey, New York and other more densely populated states in the Mid-Atlantic region, they were more likely to come away from a household lacking basic information on race, sex and ethnic background.

An Associated Press review of the first data-quality measurements released by the U.S. Census Bureau last month shows some early patterns that may point to red flags in the data that could emerge when more detailed numbers from the 2020 census are released in August.

While it's too early to reach any conclusions about the accuracy of the data gathered during the once-a-decade head count, these types of responses — a reliance on proxies for answers and just a head count with no basic demographic information — result in poorer quality data compared to other methods.

Poor quality data can diminish the political power and resources available to communities across the U.S.: Children who are missed in the census deprive communities of money for building schools, and undercounting racial or ethnic minorities prevents them from forming minority-majority political districts.

The bureau released data quality measurements last month as part of an effort to engender confidence in the numbers following a head count challenged by the spread of the new coronavirus, concerns about politicization by the Trump administration and natural disasters. The bureau also is allowing a team of outside statisticians to perform quality checks.

The measurements include state-by-state breakdowns of rates of households that answered the census questionnaire on their own, the percentage of households where a member answered a census taker's questions and the rate of households where information was gathered from administrative records from agencies like the IRS or Social Security Administration. Answers gathered from these methods are considered higher quality than proxies and population-only counts.

“We will learn more when smaller geography data is released,” said Jan Vink, a demographer at Cornell University.

Besides Alaska and West Virginia, other rural states that had the highest rates of household answers coming from proxies such as neighbors and landlords included Maine, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico. In these states, census takers relied on information from proxies for between almost a quarter and a third of households. Puerto Rico's rate was 37.3%.