Photo of census
U.S. Census paperwork is pictured in this photo illustration in the Manhattan borough of New York City, July 15, 2019. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

New York City is investing an unprecedented amount—$40 million—in hopes of getting the city’s most elusive residents to fill out the 2020 Census.

If you live in New York City, or any city for that matter, how willing are you to open your door to a stranger and answer questions about your living situation and background? How confident would you be giving that stranger answers about how many people live in the apartment next door, how old they are, or what their race is?

This is what happens when people don’t fill out the U.S. decennial census—the enumerators come a-knockin’. If nobody’s home, the enumerator can ask someone in the hallway or the elevator if they have any information on their neighbors, a process that the United States Census Bureau calls collecting proxy data. The Bureau can also make guesses about the occupancy of certain homes by looking at neighborhood statistical data. But the most accurate response comes from the residents, according to representatives from the New York City 2020 census team. In 2010, the self-response rate of New York City residents was 61.9 percent, compared to the national average of 76 percent.

While the Bureau uses other methods to obtain demographic data about residents who don’t respond to the original questionnaire, past censuses have resulted in the undercounting of many communities and groups—often minorities, foreign-born residents, renters, the homeless, low-income individuals, and children under five according to the Census Bureau’s research. So, New York City has decided to take action in time for the 2020 Census.

In January 2019, the city of New York greenlit a $40 million, multi-pronged approach to attempt as accurate a count as possible for the 2020 Census. The plan is to recruit 2,500 volunteers to serve as “census ambassadors.” So far, more than 1,500 volunteers have been recruited to engage in local census-related outreach, and in December, the Complete Count Fund, a joint project of NYC Census 2020, the New York City Council, and the City University of New York, announced the names of 150 community-based organizations in New York that will receive funding to help “get out the count.”

This level of effort is new for New York City, according to Amit S. Bagga, deputy director of the NYC Census 2020 team. “Here in New York in 2010, there were no public investments made around organizing for the census or ensuring that New Yorkers were participating,” Bagga said. “Private philanthropy did make some investments at the time but the city of New York had no such campaign.”

Only 45 percent of people know that census data helps guide federal funding for elements of public life including public hospitals, education, and transportation, according to a Census Bureau survey. That’s due in part to poor messaging and education surrounding past censuses, says Bagga. “An effort like this to raise critical awareness around a census has never been undertaken before by any city that we are aware of. It’s critical that we show up in a complete way in the census so we get our fair share of $650 billion in federal funding. This is the banner civil rights issue of our time.”

The decennial census is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years to get an accurate count of the entire population and where each person lives. In March of 2020, the Bureau will attempt to send every household in the country an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census, a 10-question survey, available in 13 languages. For the first time since the census began in 1790, residents will have the option of filling out the form online.

“Historically, there has been no conversation that focused on the tremendous amount of funding that has been unlocked for communities, such as Title I funding or job training for people in low-income neighborhoods, or healthcare funding for New Yorkers, in particular the Children’s Health Insurance Program,” said Bagga. “These are programs that really support the lives of everyday New Yorkers.”

And the strength of New York’s voice in Washington is on the line. As census data affects the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives, it’s possible New York could lose up to two congressional seats following the 2020 Census, based on the projected undercount. According to a January Census Bureau report, New York City’s response rate is projected to be 58 percent, a participation rate even lower than it was 10 years ago. The report cites a variety of reasons for the anticipated low response, namely distrust of the government plus data and privacy concerns.

And perhaps most crucially for New York, when the Trump administration announced a desire to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census in 2018, many foreign-born residents were spooked. The question was not added, and even if it had been, census answers are protected by the stringent privacy laws of Title 13 of the U.S. Code. But the fear and distrust had been sown. Bagga believes this was the intent: “The attempt to add that question was driven entirely by a desire to create mass panic and confusion so that places with large immigrant populations—which, by the way, also happen to vote in large numbers for Democratic parties—wouldn’t participate,” he said. “The administration has a constitutional obligation to count us, and they were attempting to utilize it as a tool to harm us.”

Trump administration machinations aside, New York has traditionally been a notoriously difficult city to count. Most residents live in apartment buildings, the addresses of which are challenging to keep up with due to building plan discrepancies and the reshaping of housing units. The Department of City Planning has been attempting to address this issue by documenting and submitting close to 400,000 addresses to the Census Bureau. Another barrier to an accurate count is the fact that more than 40 percent of the city’s residents are foreign-born, thus language access and proficiency can be a problem.

The 150 organizations the Complete Count Fund awarded funding to in December are either 501(c)(3) nonprofits or sponsored by nonprofits, and serve 245 neighborhoods across the five boroughs, and in 80 languages. In hopes of increasing the self-response rate, the Fund, which was granted $19 million of the city’s $40 million allocation, aims to arm the recipients with the tools they need to help raise awareness about the census, fight the spread of misinformation, and bridge the digital divide for New Yorkers in historically undercounted areas.

“We know the necessity of affordable housing and school programs to the people we serve,” said Iris Cabrera, assistant director of community engagement at one of the recipients of Complete Count funding, the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families (CHCF), which serves Latino communities in the South Bronx and Brooklyn. “It’s so important for us to make sure everyone in our community gets counted so that we get the funding we need every year.”

Even though CHCF has not yet received its grant, it is already in the process of conducting workshops and one-on-one meetings at the schools it works with in order to inform people that their information will be safe when they complete the census.

“Everything they’ve been doing in the White House is to make sure immigrants feel afraid and don’t complete the census because they don’t want New York City to receive funding,” Cabrera said. “A lot of the people we serve are immigrants, and they’re afraid to give their information because ICE is all over the areas we normally work. It’s important not only for us but for other nonprofits to get this funding because we know the community, and people know us, and they feel comfortable with us.”

In addition to the Complete Count Fund, some of the city’s $40 million allocation will go to providing training for field trainers, and to marketing that will be delivered in many languages and through a range of media, including the obvious public transit and street ads, but also ads in as many local and foreign-language newspapers and radio stations as it can find.

“Our goal is to activate all of these initiatives in a complete way in order to successfully reach all New Yorkers,” said Bagga. “It underscores how much we believe that every New Yorker has the right to be counted.”

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