Mayor de Blasio with Census Director Julie Menin and others (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
As the U.S. Census Bureau prepares to send out questionnaires for the decennial population count beginning in March, city officials are working to make sure that New York City residents respond en masse. On Friday, the city is announcing a list of 155 organizations that will receive some part of a $19-million funding pot to conduct outreach in hard-to-count communities and populations across the city.
The city’s Complete Count Fund makes up nearly half the $40 million allocation that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council made towards ensuring that New Yorkers are accurately counted next year. It’s the most funding put towards the Census effort by New York City, and the highest amount of any city across the country this time around, according to city officials. For the 2010 Census, the city spent scant resources and the self-response rate for residents was only 62%, well under the national average of 76%.
New York City is particularly vulnerable to an undercount with its heavy concentration of hard-to-count communities, including majority-black neighborhoods, public housing residents, seniors, children under the age of 5, undocumented immigrants, people with limited English proficiency and non-English speakers, people experiencing homelessness, and more. Officials at the city and state level have recognized that the best method to reach marginalized and at times nearly-invisible populations and communities is through community-based organizations that interact with them on a regular basis in their neighborhoods and in their languages.
“We will fight the fear and disinformation by those forces that want to rob us of the resources and representation that are rightfully ours by investing in community-based organizing — a model we know works," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "Neighbors will empower neighbors to stand up and be counted. New York City will not be intimidated."
Out of nearly 500 applicants for funds, the city chose 155 organizations that will be awarded grants of between $25,000 and $250,000. The groups were picked based on five criteria: geography, demography, overall reach, capacity and quality of proposals, and track record.
“We have to undo the damage that has been wrought by the Trump administration's unsuccessful and illegal attempt to add the citizenship question,” said NYC Census Director Julie Menin, in a phone interview, emphasizing the importance of the grants. “It is most often community groups and community voices that have been trusted leaders in their neighborhood for years who people will listen to.”
Another at times intersecting challenge this time around is that the Census will for the first time be digital-first, with residents encouraged by Census mailers to identify themselves online. If residents do not respond on their own, Census Bureau enumerators must find them at home to count them, a costly and laborious exercise that has led to undercounts in the past. And undercounts can have disastrous consequences, leading to cuts in federal funding to the state and even a drop in representation in the House of Representatives where New York State already stands to lose at least one seat owing to a decrease in population.
“We're in a national competition with other states, and to the extent that New Yorkers do not respond, that just means that other areas receive funding that is rightfully ours,” Menin said. “We can't allow that to happen.”
In a statement, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson reiterated that the community-based organizations are crucial in ensuring a complete and accurate count. “We have to get this right. This is a once-in-a decade chance to make sure we get the federal resources we deserve. Every New Yorker counts. This is an investment in our future,” he said.
Among the grant recipients is Sure We Can, an organization that runs a recycling center and advocates for 7,000 canners, who earn a living from collecting and recycling containers. Many of those canners come from communities that have been historically undercounted.
“There are cultural forces that render this population largely invisible and that's a big reason that we want to get involved in the census,” said Ryan Castalia, special projects coordinator of Sure We Can. “Because things like lack of digital literacy, non-English speaking, even cultural resistance to being counted due to...a lifetime of stigmatization and resistance to being a part of these systems has led to just the codification of the structures that keep them from participating.”
The census-related funding provides an opportunity to “directly contribute to these people not just having an abstract sense of empowerment but literally being counted by a culture, by a country, by a state that has been resistant to recognizing their needs,” he said. The money the organization is receiving from the city will chiefly go to training and preparing teams of canners to be Census outreach workers.
“While they might comprise 7,000 people, their reach could potentially be enormous and incredibly impactful to a community that is quite oftentimes marginalized and overlooked,” Menin said of the organization.
The factors that affect canners apply across many vulnerable populations and the city chose a broad range of organizations to address them. Other awardees include, for instance, the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority’s East Kings County Alumnae Chapter. The sorority has 80 volunteers that work with the African/Sub-Saharan African, African-American, Caribbean, Haitian, Latinx, and Jamaican communities in Brooklyn.
There is the Apicha Community Health Center, which provides health care services to low-income and uninsured New Yorkers, particularly those living with HIV. It has 100 full-time workers who provide services to 7,000 people each year in Manhattan and Queens across the African American, Asian-Pacific Islander, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities.
Manhattan-based JASA, another grant winner, has 600 employees and works with 43,000 seniors every year. It’s clients are African-American, Caribbean, Chinese, Latinx, Puerto Rican, and Russian.
For the city, the next step in its outreach is a mass media campaign that will launch in February, Menin said.
Meanwhile, at the state level census outreach is lagging behind. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last month that the state would dedicate about $60 million worth of resources to the effort, of which $20 million in direct funding was earmarked in this year’s budget (the other $40 million is the estimated value of in-kind state resources dedicated toward census efforts). On Wednesday, the state announced that local governments could begin applying for $15 million out of that pot while the other $5 million will be distributed later to target specific hard-to-count communities.
Note - this article has been updated with a comment from Mayor de Blasio.