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'It's Critical We Get the Planning Right': Council Examines City's Initial Preparations for 2020 Census Count

cm carlina riv carlos m press

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)

With the launch of the 2020 Census barely five months away, the New York City Council on Tuesday summoned officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for a progress report on the city’s preparations for the decennial population count. It is a count that has a great deal riding on it, from billions of dollars in federal funding to representation in Congress, and more.

Convening a joint hearing of the Committees on Governmental Operations, Immigration, and State and Federal Legislation, City Council members sought answers from the administration on how it is spending $40 million allocated together by the mayor and the Council to ensure a complete count of the city’s residents and how city agencies are dealing with the various challenges presented by this particular census.

New York City houses various hard-to-count populations – for whom the rate of self-response to the Census is 73% or below – which include children under the age of 5, seniors, immigrants, non-English speakers, homeless people, public housing residents, and predominantly black communities. That’s why in 2010, the city’s self-response rate was only 62%, about 14 points below the national average.

“It is critical that we get the planning right so that come spring 2020, our networks are activated to respond to the [Census] questionnaire,” said Council Member Carlos Menchaca, who chairs the Council’s immigration committee and is also co-chair of the Council’s 2020 Census Task Force along with Council Member Carlina Rivera.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of countless state and city programs, political representation, and even our democracy rely on a complete and accurate census count,” Rivera said in her opening remarks.

The census count indeed has broad reaching ramifications for the people of New York. It is used to determine the state’s congressional representation (New York could lose two seats in an undercount) and is used to draw electoral lines for local and state elections. It also affects the distributions of roughly $650 billion in federal funds to states and localities, and determines everything from where businesses invest their money and the level and funding of services for the most vulnerable residents of the city, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

This time around, city officials are hoping to boost the city’s self-response rate even as they face several new challenges. The U.S. Census Bureau has been underfunded at the federal level, which means there will be fewer enumerators that can count residents who do not respond to the Census on their own. The Bureau is also focusing primarily on digital methodology, urging people to fill out the census online through their phones and computers, which has raised concerns about data privacy and security as well as the lack of digital literacy among certain sections of the population.
But for New York City, a particularly pressing issue is the heightened sense of apprehension and mistrust among immigrant communities about the federal government, which has been exacerbated for years by the Trump administration’s unsuccessful effort to place a citizenship question on the census questionnaire.

At the hearing, NYC Census Director Julie Menin reassured the Council members that the city’s endeavors are well underway and are split up into four pillars – a $19-million Complete Count Fund to give grants to community-based organizations; a field program involving Neighborhood Organizing Census Committees that will include 2,500 volunteers in 245 neighborhoods; partnerships with city agencies and businesses; and a multilingual mass media campaign with messages tailored to specific communities.

“Given that there is significant overlap between those populations that have been historically undercounted and populations that have been forced to live on the political or socioeconomic margins of society, achieving a complete and accurate count in every census is critical to ensure that every person in the United States has full access to the representation that they deserve,” Menin said in her opening statement.

She said the administration has already received more than 500 applications for grants from the Complete Count Fund and that those would be awarded by December. More than 500 people have also volunteered for the NOCCs and the city has been conducting trainings so that they can recruit more volunteers at the local level.

Menin’s office is also coordinating with more than 50 city agencies, particularly public facing ones such as the library system, to expand outreach. The mass media campaign, she said, will be focused on ethnic and community media and will be announced in the coming weeks, though advertisements will appear by the start of 2020.

The question of state funding loomed large over the hearing, as Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to release $20 million allocated for census outreach in the state budget earlier this year. A state commission that was supposed to recommend an implementation plan for those funds issued its report on October 8, recognizing many of the issues that were already apparent to city Census officials. But it punted the funding decision back to the governor’s administration.

“The Complete Count Commission released its report just a few weeks ago that was based on several months of research and public hearings,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “We are using it as a basis to develop a plan for how the State can best work with local governments and our partners to properly distribute resources so that every New Yorker is counted in the 2020 Census.”

[Read: State Census Commission Releases Report, with Funding Decisions Kicked Back to Cuomo Administration]

City officials had no clue at Tuesday’s hearing as to how those funds would be distributed, however. “I don’t know,” said Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, when Council Member Andrew Cohen asked about the proportion of state funds that would be directed to the city. She did say she was aware that state agencies were “activated” and in various stages of planning as they await funds from the governor’s team.

Mostofi, Menin, and other officials did outline for the Council members how the administration is tackling the other challenging aspects of the census.

To count New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, the Department of Social Services is coordinating with the U.S. Census Bureau, which also does its own “group quarter” operation to find and count unhoused individuals. DSS will also spend three days counting the street homeless population in the spring, Menin said.

Kathleen Daniel, field director for NYC Census, said CUNY would recruit and pay 200 students to assist in the census campaign as leaders of NOCCs, campaign organizers, and to work with the office’s data operation. Amit Bagga, NYC Census’ deputy director, said the office is in talks with agencies that can make computers available to New Yorkers and is negotiating software contracts to provide digital training materials to CBOs.

The city’s 219 libraries will also be pressed into service, with more than 1,000 employees trained to assist New Yorkers in filling out the census online. There will also be hundreds of pop-up centers across the city, in places such as houses of worship, community centers, and elected officials’ offices, where residents can access computers to fill out the questionnaire.

Peter Lobo, director of the population division at the Department of City Planning, said the city has been working since 2016 to update the Census Bureau’s Master Address File (MAF), which includes addresses for every resident of the city. “If a person’s address is not on the MAF, that person cannot be counted in the census,” he said. Last year, he said DCP submitted 123,000 addresses, 59,000 corrections, and 3,200 deletions to the Census Bureau. Only six of the new addresses were rejected and 1,602 of the deletions were accepted. Lobo said the department will also send a list of more than 100,000 newly-constructed housing units to the Bureau on October 30.

Bagga and Menin also noted that the city is helping the Census Bureau recruit enumerators and employees, particularly after the Bureau obtained a waiver to hire noncitizens, who are seen as important in helping achieve a complete count among certain communities.

A major concern for many of the Council members, however, was how the city could overcome the wariness among immigrant communities and urge them to respond to the federal government. Mostofi emphasized that the divide would be best bridged by enlisting the various community groups that are trusted voices in their neighborhoods. “We recognize that the federal government’s efforts to sow fear and confusion must be countered with easy-to-understand information and outreach, including language access for our immigrant population,” she said earlier.

Menin said combating “misinformation and disinformation” is one of the biggest challenges for the city. Menin and Bagga emphasized that the mass media campaign would also account for different communities through culturally competent messages and translations. “We know that slightly different messages are going to resonate slightly differently in different places. So we need to be prepared for that,” Bagga said.

Menin pointed out that in 2010, the federal government was largely in charge of the broad media outreach and the message was uniform. “The messaging being, ‘Fill out the census, it's your civic duty.’...It wasn't micro-targeted. We're completely flipping that model. We want to micro-target our messaging to various communities so that people really understand what's at stake.”

Several data experts, civil rights groups, immigrant rights organizations, business groups, and government reform advocates also testified at Tuesday’s hearing. They included the New York Immigration Coalition, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Taiwanese American Association of New York, the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Association for a Better New York, the Digital Equity Laboratory at The New School, Citizens Union, the Arab-American Family Support Center, the Asian American Federation, Community Resource Exchange, and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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