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UK government defends census amid charges it undercounted Orthodox kids by up to 35%

“The census data must now be interpreted cautiously when it concerns the haredi community,” Joel Friedman, a spokesman for U.K. Orthodox Jewry, told JNS.

Leaflet for the official England and Wales census, February 2021. Credit: Ink Drop.
Leaflet for the official England and Wales census, February 2021. Credit: Ink Drop.

The British government is pushing back against a claim, articulated in a report from a think tank in the United Kingdom, that it undercounted haredi children in the country by as much as 35%.

“We have full confidence in our census estimates,” said Glenn Garrett, communications officer for the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which oversees the census in England and Wales every 10 years and produces official U.K. statistics.

The office achieved the “fantastic response rate of 97%,” including more than 88% in each local authority, “and undertook the most comprehensive quality assurance ever, including involving local authorities for the first time,” Garrett told JNS.

“In Census 2021, everyone was encouraged to self-identify as they wished. To ensure everyone was counted, we have worked closely with various community groups and leaders before, during and after the census collection phase,” he added.

The census had dedicated staff with Yiddish and Hebrew skills who worked with local Jewish communal representatives to place announcements about the census in Jewish media outlets, according to Garrett.

He defended the official statistics as the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a U.K. think tank, issued a report last month that estimated that the 2021 census potentially undercounted haredi children by more than a third.

“The magnitude of the undercount decreases as the children’s age increases,” per the report. “The lowest level of undercount was among haredi boys aged 5-10, where the 2021 Census captured 73% of the expected total based on Department for Education data. The highest level of undercount was for children aged 0-5, where the Census captured 65% of the total expected based on haredi community announcements.”

UK census haredi
One of several Yiddish ads which the U.K. Office for National Statistics, in partnership with Interlink Foundation, placed in Jewish U.K. publications to promote the census. The large texts says, “Listen to the call of community activists.” Courtesy: Joel Friedman/Pinter Trust.

‘A greater barrier’

The report author was David Graham, a senior research fellow at the think tank and honorary associate in Hebrew, biblical and Jewish studies at the University of Sydney, as well as an honorary research associate at the University of Cape Town.

Graham compared the census data with two additional independent sources: haredi birth announcements from Jewish communal records and Department of Education school census data. The latter two aligned closely but differed significantly from the census data, according to the report.

The U.K. Census is a mandatory survey mailed to each home in the country every 10 years. It has included a question about religious identification since 2001. 

The undercount was notably higher in the London borough of Hackney and in the city of Salford, where it suggested children were undercounted by 73% and 66%, respectively. The report suggests that the voluntary nature of the question on religion and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic during the census period may have skewed statistics.

The length of the census forms might also have affected the count of haredi families. Households with more than five people had to request a continuation questionnaire. The average size of Torah-observant Jewish families is about 5.5

“This is likely to have been a greater barrier to haredi enumeration than others given their larger average household size and greater reliance on paper forms,” stated the report. “Online forms having no household size limit, but haredim having lower levels of Internet access.”

‘We wanted to give people support’

Joel Friedman. Credit: Courtesy.

The Pinter Trust, a project of the Interlink Foundation, which represents British Orthodox Jewish communities, was “very involved” in the census, as it has been in the past, according to Joel Friedman, the foundation’s public affairs director.

“We worked with other partners to promote the census across the haredi community,” Friedman told JNS. “In the year-and-a-half in the lead-up to the census, we attended a huge number of meetings and translated some of their materials into Yiddish and ran customized ads in the haredi press.”

The foundation wanted to promote more participation in that particular community, given its history of underreporting, according to Friedman.

“We wanted to give people support and show that community leaders are looking forward to the census and why it is important,” he told JNS. “We got rabbinical support for the census, which means they recognized the importance of this work.”

Friedman noted the biblical and rabbinic prohibition against counting Jews—the Torah refers to censuses performed by proxy, by counting half-shekel coins rather than people—but he said the injunction doesn’t apply to the U.K. Census.

“However, we also recognized that for some people, especially in the older generation, censuses still carry traumatizing memories from the Holocaust, where people were counted, numbered, identified, marked and millions persecuted or killed,” he said.

‘Time it took to complete the survey was extensive’

Although the Office for National Statistics had stopped sending paper forms to most U.K. households, instead mailing codes to be used to fill out census forms online, the Pinter Trust requested that paper forms be mailed to homes in haredi postal codes. It also requested that additional papers be provided given the large families.

“This alteration is crucial to accommodate the larger-than-average household sizes within the haredi community. The standard form had space for five persons, and if you needed more, you could order online or over the phone,” Friedman told JNS. “This additional step, we reasoned, will lead to an undercount.”

But the Office for National Statistics maintained that it could not send paper forms with extra sheets, according to Friedman.

“After comprehensive discussion, we reached the decision that it would be more appropriate to issue a standardized invitation letter,” he said. “This letter would offer the choice of either completing the census online or requesting a paper form via telephone, at which point you would advise how many people are in the household so they would send you the correct number of sheets.”

It emerged later that most haredi households received the initial paper forms, despite the agreed-upon strategy to increase their participation in the census. “Unfortunately, these forms lacked the supplementary paper required for larger households,” he said.

Friedman also cited “survey fatigue.”

“I filled out the census online, and at the time, I had seven children out of our household of nine. The time it took to complete the survey was extensive and [included] repetitive questions for each child,” he said. “The process must have been even more cumbersome for those using paper forms.”

The underreporting does not surprise the Pinter Trust, “though it is disheartening as accurate census data is essential,” he said. “The undercount poses a significant risk of inaccurately allocating resources for health care, education and various other community planning purposes. As a result, the census data must now be interpreted cautiously when it concerns the haredi community.” 

The trust knows that the Office for National Statistics is “looking into how to ensure correct interpretation of the numbers, and most importantly, how to engage better with the community,” Friedman said.

ONS ‘aware of census burden’

JNS asked the Office of National Statistics about Friedman’s statements—that the wrong census forms were sent to haredi families despite a prior plan to increase participation in the census in these communities.

Maggie Morgan, chief media officer at ONS, told JNS that the office had not halted paper forms, which were sent “first as a default with the initial contact letter to 11% of all households across England and Wales where the take-up of the online option was likely to be relatively low.” That included Hackney, she said. 

“These addresses were also given an online access code in case they preferred the digital route. Of the 11% of households sent paper questionnaires, including an access code to respond online, 46.4% went on to complete the census online,” Morgan said.

Census staff also sent paper questionnaire reminders to households “in some areas if they had not responded to an initial contact letter, which included only a unique access code for online completion,” she explained, adding that field officers, who visited addresses where there had been no response, had paper questionnaires and continuation forms for larger families.

“It is the case that we were not able to send out continuation forms unless they were requested; however, we wanted to make it as easy as possible for everyone to respond and for this reason, all materials, including translated ones, explained clearly how to request the continuation form needed for larger households,” Morgan said.

“Support and help to respond was available through a number of routes, including via Census 2021 support centers at a variety of locations such as libraries, community centers, youth groups or social housing communal areas,” she said.

“The information we gather from the census is important, as it informs the provision of the public services on which we all rely,” she added. “We are very aware of the burden on respondents and only ask people to fill out the census every 10 years. The average completion time for the household online form was 23 minutes.”

Write-in ethnicity

Amanda Bowman: Credit: Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Amanda Bowman, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews—the nearly 265-year-old representative body of the U.K. Jewish community—also expressed concern about the official count.

“This is further evidence that including ‘Jewish’ in the ethnicity classifications could bolster future census accuracy with more identifying as Jewish as an ethnicity rather than solely a religion,” she told JNS.

Despite “overwhelming support” at a 2021 Board of Deputies special meeting for including “Jewish” as a voluntary entry under the category of ethnicity, the Office for National Statistics declined to approve its inclusion, according to Bowman.

That decision has already fueled an underestimation of the British Jewish population, she said.

“There was overwhelming support for change as recognizing U.K. Jews as an ethnicity could contribute to enhanced public services, better representation and more accurate demographic data,” Bowman said. “We urged those completing the 2021 Census to write in ‘Jewish’ under ethnicity, resulting in nearly 68,000 reporting Jewish ethnicity—double the figure a decade earlier.”

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