New York's Hipsters Too Cool For The Census

Many New York City residents aren't returning their census forms. The return rate is only around 50 percent, but the lowest rate of return (around 30 percent) is the hipster enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. These young, recent graduates with ironic mustaches and plaid shirts are apparently too busy tweeting to fill out a simple census form.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. If you haven't returned your U.S. census form yet - you know who you are - you've got company. About a third of the households in the country haven't yet returned that envelope and in big cities, including New York, the response rate is even worse.

Only half of the households in New York have bothered. Now, traditionally, poor and immigrant neighborhoods have been the hardest ones to count. But NPR's Robert Smith reports that New York's worst census neighborhood is an unlikely one.

ROBERT SMITH: The biggest census procrastinators in New York City happen to live in the most self-consciously hip neighborhood: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Williamsburg is a magnet for kids just out of college, home of indie bands and ironic mustaches, wacky bikes and skinny jeans, and honest to goodness record stores like this one, Academy Annex.

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SMITH: Two 20-somethings, Nate and Mike, are working behind the counter. They share an apartment and should be sharing a census form, but...

MIKE: Did we get the forms at the house?

Mr. NATE STARK: Yeah.

MIKE: We did. I didn't see any yet.

Mr. STARK: We still get mail from the past 30 people that have lived there. So it's like who knows if people are getting these.

SMITH: Well, actually the census knows. These few blocks around Wythe Avenue and 6th Street have about a 36 percent return rate.

Nate Stark has an explanation.

Mr. STARK: I guess it's laziness and like, what's the point? When it comes down to it, nobody wants to fill out like another form that's just like getting sent to your house that really relatively has nothing to do with your life.

SMITH: He thinks the young people just haven't been given a good enough reason to fill out the census.

Mr. STARK: I mean people would do if they got like five bucks.

SMITH: Five bucks?

Mr. STARK: Yeah. Or if there was like more than just like a piece of paper that's like you have to do this or you could get in trouble, which no one will get in trouble; that's why they don't do it.

SMITH: The Census Bureau is spending $133 million on advertising in dozens of languages telling people that the census is their civic duty, that it helps get federal funding in their communities, but the message isn't sinking in here in Williamsburg.

Just outside the record store, I meet Jamie Lilly. She knows the ads. She got the form but she thinks that returning it is just supporting a government that she doesn't believe in.

Ms. JAMIE LILLY: You know, on a personal note, maybe some people, they figure what's the point to be counted if you don't count for much anyway? If we don't count, why be counted?

SMITHZ; Now, this isn't the case for the whole neighborhood. If you walk toward the new glass condo buildings, you'll find that participation in the census takes off. In the other direction, return rates plunge. And you can't blame it all on the cool kids. This is the Hasidic part of Williamsburg, where the Satmar Orthodox Jews live. Only one quarter of households here so far have participated. Not only are they reluctant to fill out the census, they don't even want to talk about it.

SMITH: Excuse me, sir. I'm a news reporter asking people about the census. Did you fill out the census?

Unidentified Man: I do not know about that.

SMITH: The man, dressed head to toe in black, tells me that they don't listen to the radio and they certainly don't do radio interviews. As for the census, he waves his hand. Too busy, he says.

Stephen Levin, the city councilmember for Williamsburg, says they're working to get the word out to the Hasidim through grassroots community groups, although census ads mean little if you don't actually watch TV.

Councilmember STEPHEN LEVIN (Williamsburg, New York): Because the word gets around through word of mouth and not through the mass media in that community, it just takes a little bit longer for those things to come about.

SMITH: And maybe that's what these two parts of procrastinating Williamsburg have in common: susceptibility to peer pressure. If you see your neighbors doing it, if it actually becomes cool to fill out the census, then maybe Williamsburg will be counted.

Robert Smith, NPR News, Brooklyn.

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