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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louis Trails County In 2020 Census Responses

The census will only ask if respondents are 'male' or 'female.' That leaves out a growing number of people who identify outside of that gender binary.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Only 53% of St. Louis residents have self-responded to the census compared to 76% of St. Louis County residents. The disparity is most stark between north city and north county.

The percentage of people in St. Louis who have self-responded to the 2020 census is significantly less than in St. Louis County.

In the city, 53% of residents have responded compared to 76% in the county, according to self-response rate maps generated by the City University of New York Mapping Service. St. Clair and Madison counties in the Metro East have self-response rates of 68% and 74% respectively.

Several census tracts in north St. Louis have self-response rates below 30% and 10 to 15 percentage points lower than in 2010. In north St. Louis County, there are no tracts with self-response rates below 30% and only three that are below 40% — near Normandy, Pine Lawn and Jennings.

Charles Bryson, chair of the city’s census count committee, partially blames the low number in north St. Louis on the census’ emphasis on online responses.

“The problem with a lot of the people on the north side of the city, as we’ve seen, not only in this situation but with public schools, don’t necessarily have internet access or good internet access,” he said.

Bryson, who’s also director of the civil rights enforcement agency for St. Louis, added the city found household heads, who fill out the census survey, in north St. Louis were younger and didn’t have much experience with the census.

“They were not head of households when 2010 happened, and they are unfamiliar with the process and what the benefits are,” he said.

The 10-year headcount will accept responses until the end of the month, giving communities in the St. Louis region only about four more weeks to boost their numbers.

The census count can translate to economic development and demonstrate a need for investment from outside businesses. Census results also determine congressional representation for the next decade and how much federal and state funding is distributed to local communities.

Officials estimate Missouri lost $1,300 per person per year for every individual not counted in 2010.

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Coronavirus hurts the count

The coronavirus pandemic also played a role in stifling the census count because it closed public schools, libraries and social service agencies, all which the city was using to spread information about the census, Bryson said.

“All that had to stop,” he said. “We were virtually shut down for almost three months.”

Bryson noted that CUNY’s mapping service doesn’t include the responses the census is gathering from in-person follow-ups. The St. Louis Area Census office is 98.5% complete with the nonresponse follow-up phase of the 2020 Census, according to the bureau, which didn't say how these follow-ups affect the overall response rates.

Others fault the city and attribute fewer the responses to poor planning and organization.

“I’m surprised that our local leaders have not been more aggressive and deliberate to get the count up,” said Ness Sandoval, who researches demography and sociology at St. Louis University.

Sandoval uses various data sets, including the census, to map and explore the relationship among quality of life, social inequality and justice in the region.

Census tracts in the southwest portion of the city have much higher response rates than those in the southeast or north.

“If you look at a map of the city of St. Louis there is a very large cluster of census tracts that have the lowest response rates for the region,” he said. “If I were to overlay that with a map of the social vulnerability index, it would almost be a perfect correlation.”

Just like in the Metro East, community organizations in St. Louis stepped up to get their communities counted out of necessity, Sandoval said.

Last weekend, the city hosted or assisted in several community events geared toward census outreach and voter registration, Bryson said.

St. Louis County government and individual municipalities publicly invested more in census outreach compared to the City of St. Louis, said Alex Rankin, director of government affairs for the Missouri Foundation for Health.

“It did end up being a little more visible because of that public investment from the county and because of the network of community organizations that were working in the county,” she said. “The support from individual municipalities in St. Louis County undoubtedly helped.”

Rankin, who is also part of Missouri’s statewide 2020 Complete Count Committee, explained that the county did a better job of coordinating census engagement and outreach with individual municipalities and community organizations, especially those in north St. Louis County.

“There was a lot more frequency of seeing a census message in St. Louis County and in north county compared to north city,” she said. “Many of the organizations that are working hard in St. Louis City are smaller and were spread really thin over the last months between COVID-19 and advocating for racial equity.”

The smaller municipalities in the county also likely helped drive responses because the results of the census have outsized impacts on their funding sources, Rankin said.

“They were maybe able to localize it a little more,” she said. “Messages work as much as the messenger.”

Distrust of the government

The pandemic and anti-racism protests following the killing of George Floyd exacerbated underlying mistrust of the government and by extension the census, said state Rep. Wiley Price IV, D-St. Louis.

“We all are downloading that in our subconscious,” he said. “And it comes out in a way where when it’s time to do something for the feds that is actually for you, truly for you, people are skittish in how they respond to that.”

Price’s district covers portions of north St. Louis, and he’s not surprised census response rates are as low as they are.

“When the people are left uninformed and conditioned to be ignorant, this is the symptom,” he said. “Then you multiply that with the political and racial climate that we have going on right now. This is the end result.”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

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