Gotham Gazette Fri, 14 Aug 2020 09:35:22 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) U.S. Census Bureau Resumes Limited Field Operations in New York and NYC Continues Outreach While State Remains MIA 2020 Census efforts in New York

2020 Census efforts continue, though NY State is MIA (photo: Governor's Office)

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York, it posed severe impediments to the 2020 Census process, forcing local, state, and federal officials to suspend plans for on-the-ground outreach to make sure all state residents are counted. But federal and city officials have continued remote operations to encourage a robust self-response to the decennial population count and, as regions across New York State begin to approach a sense of normalcy, the U.S. Census Bureau has resumed some of its field activities.

The 2020 Census officially launched on March 12, just days before New York State went into a form of shutdown under an executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Plans made by officials for widespread grassroots campaigns had to be abandoned or adapted. But the first phase, the self-response period, was extended from July 31 to October 31, and New Yorkers have been responding at a greater rate than ten years ago. Because of the pandemic, the fate of the second phase, where Census enumerators go door-to-door to count those who do not initially respond, seemed to be in doubt.

An accurate Census count is essential since it determines the amount of federal aid that the state receives for infrastructure, and social and economic welfare programs. The Census also decides the number of seats states hold in the House of Representatives, and the population count is used to draw electoral districts.

Even before the pandemic, officials feared a repeat of 2010, when New York City saw a severe undercount and had a self-response rate of about 62%, compared to the national average of 76%. New York State’s overall response was close to 76% as well. New York has many large “hard-to-count” populations, which are less likely to respond on their own for various reasons, requiring a far more extensive push by local government and community groups as well as greater resources for in-person counting from the Census Bureau. 

There have been some promising signs. Even though New York is still behind the nation, the self-response rate seems well on its way to beating the final tally in 2010. As of Wednesday, May 27, the state’s self-response rate was 55.1%, the city’s rate was 50.5%, and the national rate was 60.3%, according to the CUNY Mapping Service’s Census project.

The U.S. Census Bureau is now watching public health and “reopening” metrics closely to determine where field operations can be relaunched, according to Jeff Behler, director of the Census Bureau's New York Regional Office.

Already, staff have returned to field offices in Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and Buffalo, and are conducting an on-the-ground “update leave” operation, which involves hand-delivering packages with Census questionnaires to remote and rural households that only have a post office box number (all other households that have not responded have been mailed those Census packets). That operation covers about 5% of households across the country, and 3% in New York State (about 270,000 households). Census workers are not knocking on doors, however, and are using GPS coordinates to deliver the packets to doorsteps of homes. Officials and advocates at all levels are still hoping that more and more people will self-respond, either online or by mail. This year’s Census is the first to go digital-first.

Behler said there are two major operations that will follow what’s happening now. The “service-based enumeration,” which is meant to count people at homeless shelters, mobile food vans, and soup kitchens. The dates for that are yet to be determined. “There are discussions that our staff at headquarters are having with high-level stakeholders to get input, to try and figure out when we do that, between now and the end of October,” Behler said. 

The next major phase is the non-response follow up, which involves door-to-door outreach. The Census Bureau has proposed beginning that phase on August 11, pending congressional approval.

Behler said the Bureau also intends to hire more enumerators than originally planned – more than 32,000 for New York State (18,000 in New York City alone), up from the earlier proposal of between 25,000 and 29,000 in total and 15,000 for the city. “So assuming it's safe to do so, because we're following all state and local guidelines, we would begin that operation. We plan on hiring more people to get it done in eight weeks, rather than ten or eleven weeks,” he said. Hiring, which was also suspended because of the pandemic, will begin next week with jobs posted to the Census website.

The Bureau will begin to contact individuals who applied for these jobs months ago, to begin the fingerprinting and background check process that is required. The shift in timeline will likely affect who will opt in for these jobs, though it also comes at a time when the state is seeing near-record unemployment and people desperate for any form of income.

Behler is also encouraged by the self-response rate so far, though it has (as expected) been higher in suburban and rural areas while lagging in urban centers. 

“One of the greatest tools that we have on the Census is the ability to bring people together, especially in these urban areas, and that's what we find works the best,” he said. “And if you would have told me six months ago, ‘Hey, we're going to take that ability away. And you're going to get to over 50% in the City of New York,’ I would have been shocked.”

Part of that success stems from the fact that New York City was well-prepared for the Census with a $40-million strategy in place, including $19 million in grant funding for outreach awarded to community-based organizations in December. The city government, with a well-resourced census office, and its grantees quickly pivoted various aspects of their plans to respond to the pandemic and have since continued to use a wide variety of strategies to inform New York City residents about the Census.

The city has also been working on some limited groundwork while maintaining strict social distancing guidelines – for instance, handing out face masks in the park and urging people to fill out the Census – and is preparing for a broader phase of outreach once it is safe to do so. Unlike most parts of New York, the city is not expected to meet a set of criteria set by the state to begin a phased reopening of its economy until the middle of next month. But New York City Census Director Julie Menin is not resting on the relative success so far. The city intends to set up 300 pop-up centers to help New Yorkers fill out the demographic questionnaire. The centers are slated to be set up at public library branches, houses of worship, and at the various nonprofits that received city funding. 

The self-response rate is “absolutely a bright spot,” Menin said in a phone interview, “because it really means that we're starting to close this gap between New York City and the nation, which is something that I think is very important because it's a national competition.”

She noted that more than one-third of New Yorkers don’t have access to the internet at home, and said the city will only be able to reach them once in-person outreach is feasible. “Those numbers we cannot and will not be able to get to until the point that we can reopen,” she said.

Since the pandemic hit the city, Menin’s office has organized text-banking and phone-banking efforts, along with a hyper-targeted mass media campaign in 24 languages. Volunteers have sent 5.6 million texts reaching 1.4 million New Yorkers; they have made 488,000 calls, reaching 92,000 individual New Yorkers in 13 languages. More than 271,000 pieces of multilingual census literature has been handed out at the Department of Education’s 490 food distribution sites around the city.

Local elected officials and nonprofits have also stepped in to help hundreds of New Yorkers complete the Census in several languages. The Census office has even created 15 separate language groups on messaging apps like WhatsApp, KakaoTalk and WeChat to target the immigrant communities that are particularly hard to reach in the city, while community groups were also adjusting to more digital efforts through localized and culturally-competent approaches.

There have been public service announcements featuring rapper Cardi B, singer Alicia Keys, television host Seth Meyers, playwright and actor Lin Manuel-Miranda, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. On Tuesday, the city even launched a contest in partnership with the food delivery service Seamless, which is giving out ten $1,000 food vouchers, one each week for ten weeks, to people who fill out the Census. (You can enter the contest here.)

Access to real-time data has also allowed the city to home in on the neighborhoods where on-the-ground outreach will be necessary. In particular, those communities that have been ravaged by the coronavirus – which have been overwhelmingly low-income communities of color – have shown lower rates of response to the Census, which could further exacerbate the inequities that already exist there. “COVID is a stark and unfortunate reminder of why the Census is so vitally important,” Menin said. “In the very difficult fiscal situation that our city is in, we cannot leave even a single dollar on the table, not to mention billions of dollars.”

New York state government, however, was already late to the census game and still hasn’t seemed to adapt to the current circumstances. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pledge to allocate as much as $70 million in resources towards census operations has not materialized, even though $10 million of that was added in the state budget that passed in April. Included in the total was a $20 million pot of grant funding that was appropriated last year to fund outreach by community-based organizations. The grants were never awarded.

The state census effort is now being overseen by Empire State Development, which has repeatedly failed to provide Gotham Gazette with the state’s census plans (if any exist) that show any progress at all or take into account the conditions imposed by the COVID-19 crisis.

In an emailed statement, ESD spokesperson Kristin Devoe indicated that the census effort may fall victim to severe budget cuts that the governor has proposed because of the loss of state revenue amid the pandemic.

“We remain fully committed to ensuring a complete and accurate count of New Yorkers in the 2020 Census and are thankful the Census Bureau recognized the complications caused by the pandemic and delayed the filing deadline to October 31,” Devoe said. “While we are actively contemplating options to achieve this vital objective, the reality is, New York State is facing a 14% drop in revenue – $61 billion over four years – and in the absence of federal funding to offset this loss, the state is developing a plan to reduce spending by over $10 billion. About 90% of State funding supports schools, healthcare, local grants and services for the most vulnerable populations, and any category where the state doesn’t cut state spending will simply mean deeper cuts in another.”

[You can fill out the census online here. A digital code is not required though one might have been/be sent to you in the mail. You can also fill it out by phone by calling 844-330-2020. The Bureau also offers assistance and different phone lines for various languages. You can find those here.]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

U.S. Census Bureau Resumes Limited Field Operations in New York and NYC Continues Outreach While State Remains MIA Thu, 28 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Coronavirus Shows Just How Much the Census Counts pickupmeals

Federal aid to New York City is even more urgent than ever (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

While many of our daily activities remain on hold, the 2020 Census must still be taken and completed this year. Not only is it required by the U.S. Constitution, but there is a tremendous amount at stake for New York, including billions of dollars in federal aid, a fair allocation of seats in Congress, and accurate representation in state and local government. From road repairs to education and social services, over 300 federal programs are driven by census data.

Through my work at New York Law School and the statewide New York Counts 2020 census coalition, I have been collaborating with New Yorkers on best practices and strategies to ensure an accurate census count. What we cannot overlook—especially now—is that the census is critical to protecting us from future pandemics. An accurate census count is crucial to securing enough hospitals, medical facilities, doctors, nurses and medical supplies so that we’ll never again see the kinds of shortages we are seeing today. That’s because health care providers, insurance companies, and government officials all make important decisions on where to provide resources and assistance based on census data.

Unfortunately, while this year’s count is especially important, it’s also far more challenging than any in our country’s history. And right now, New York is lagging behind other states. As of May 8, only 52.4 percent of New York State’s households have responded in the first few weeks of the census counting process, placing New York 42nd among the 50 states.

The census has never been a perfect count. In fact, well before COVID-19 struck, the Urban Institute estimated that New York could be undercounted by 313,700 people this year. That’s almost half the population of one of our congressional districts. 

But COVID-19 puts us in danger of a far more severe undercount that will impact our state for years to come. Some of lowest response rates are in communities hit hardest by COVID-19, the result of income and racial inequality. These are the same areas that have also been historically undercounted and neglected, and without an accurate count, they will not receive adequate government support.

Everyone has a role to play in the solution: our government leaders, community organizations, experts, and fellow New Yorkers. Since person-to-person outreach cannot take place, outreach groups must rely on text messages, phone banking, emails, Zoom sessions, and postering to reach communities that have been historically undercounted. I’m encouraged to see several areas asking grocery stores and other essential businesses to place 2020 Census flyers in bags as a reminder. These are the kinds of actions we need now.

While I applaud the U.S. Census Bureau for extending the counting period until October 31, with so much uncertainty due to COVID-19, this still may not be enough time. If census workers are not able to visit homes directly, then we will need to build new strategies to reach people through social distancing, media, and other creative methods never tried before.

With so much at stake depending on an accurate census, everyone who can respond must do so. Census information cannot be shared with any other government agency, and there is no citizenship question. It’s easy to fill out and can be done online, over the phone, or by mail.

Now more than ever, answer the census. Take 10 minutes to answer 10 questions, which will help New York for 10 years.

Jeffrey M. Wice is an Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow at New York Law School and head of the school’s New York Census and Redistricting Institute. On Twitter @JeffWice.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Coronavirus Shows Just How Much the Census Counts Mon, 11 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Community Groups Shift Strategies After Coronavirus Blows Up Census Outreach Plans 2020 census new york city

Coronavirus has shifted Census efforts (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The New York Public Library had set up dedicated chromebook computers that only connected to the 2020 Census website. The Brooklyn Public Library prepared “mobile units” of internet-connected tablets that could be dispatched to community centers and groups. Outreach employees from the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC) and SOMOS Community Care were starting to canvas areas of upper Manhattan to help passersby understand the benefits of participating in the once-a-decade count, and collect pledge cards to follow up with people.

The Boro Park Jewish Community Council had used some of the money it received from the city’s Complete Count Fund to buy a “censusmobile” — a van covered with messages in English and Yiddish and outfitted with computers that would drive around the heavily Jewish area of Brooklyn, letting residents learn about and even complete the Census.

Now, the libraries and community centers are closed, the mobile units and the canvassers are staying inside, and the censusmobile is parked and unused as the Jewish Community Council has shuttered its main office.

The arrival of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has quickly upended life around the globe, and the multifaceted outreach operations for the crucial decennial count of every person and household in the United States have not been exempted. Every level of government, nonprofits, corporations, and community organizations have all had to significantly shift their strategies in response.

This has meant partly toggling to established digital tools like phone- and text-banking, facilitated by the New York City census office, which has had robust funding and outreach plans that have been shifted amid the outbreak. María Guzmán-Colón, the census manager at NMIC, said that with the nonprofit’s outreach staff grounded, most of those operations were being done via text, with “a list that [the city] provides for us as well as a list that we provided of our contacts, and people that we had gotten pledge cards from” before in-person operations stopped.

But many organizations have also been striving to think outside the box. “We've kind of felt that [text-banking] is an inefficient way of reaching people,” said Howard Shih, research and policy director at the Asian American Federation. “You can't really figure out if the number you're texting is somebody that is ‘hard to count.’”

Instead, the Asian American Federation has been focusing on identifying where hard-to-count communities already are online and reaching them there. “In the Korean community, KaKaoTalk is heavily used. For mainland Chinese, it's WeChat…I live up here in Westchester, and I know that there's a specific WeChat group for Westchester Chinese to trade information and resources,” said Shih. “We kind of have to find a person that's already in that network to be our champion.”

The strategy of reaching community influencers and enlisting ordinary New Yorkers to contact those they are still able to reach has become a centerpiece of the new census game plans. “You can make a poster at home if you have the materials, drop it off at your local bodega, and encourage them to put it up, because they are still open, and they are still community centers for a lot of people,” said Meeta Anand, the New York Immigration Coalition’s 2020 Census senior fellow. “I've been saying ‘think big but act small.’ And by that I mean, if you live in a building, write a note to the residents of your building. If there's a church or a mosque you go to, reach out to the leader and see if they're willing to include census messaging in however they're reaching out to their congregants.”

The main idea behind these pushes is that, as New Yorkers stare down what could be months of social distancing, they will not stop seeking community, and will find that community either in very specialized groups online or in hyperlocal spaces. Getting census messaging to influential people who are in these spaces then lets the word keep trickling out. “Instagram Live is becoming a huge space,” said Anand. The New York Immigration Coalition has been encouraging people to make videos of themselves filling out the Census, and “create them in their language, send them around. We’re asking anyone who might know any influencer at all, at any level, to create such a video,” Anand said.

Shih called it a “period of experimentation” for community organizations trying to do outreach. “People still want to connect socially, right? They just have to do it in a socially-distant way. The challenge for us is, people are adjusting their behaviors now, and they really haven't settled into a specific pattern of behavior so that we can actually figure out where people are getting their information, where people are keeping in touch with their loved ones. So we just have to try to pay attention, have discussions, and figure out what's been working,” he said.

Many of these organizations are still service providers, after all, and still being sought out for advice and support on matters of housing, employment, immigration, and other community concerns. They are responding to this need with virtual town halls or Q-and-A sessions on Facebook or other digital tools, and can use these opportunities to convey the importance of the Census, which determines many billions of dollars in funding every year, a state’s representation in Congress, and much more.

Once people have been convinced to complete the Census, there’s the question of where they do it. While there’s been much discussion around the U.S. Census Bureau’s efforts to shift the count mostly online — a strategy that community groups worried would exclude hard-to-count communities with inconsistent access to broadband internet and the hardware to use it — a separate, little-noticed innovation has actually proven auspicious: the ability to fill the Census form out by phone.

“That was already in place, luckily, so when we reach out to folks at home, if they don't happen to have a smartphone, or if they don't have a laptop, or there's some sort of technical gap, there is the phone option,” said Guzmán-Colón.

“The online option does pose a challenge for certain groups,” said Anand. ”And it's true that our way of overcoming that challenge was going to be ‘go to the library,’ which doesn't work so much anymore. So, we are encouraging people who want to fill out the census to do it over the phone.”

The system is available in 13 widely-used languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), and Arabic. The organizations that Gotham Gazette connected with all said the system appears to be working well, with the only gripe being slightly longer wait times for languages other than English and Spanish.

Though the pandemic has blown up outreach plans, there are some silver linings. For one, it provides a ready-made opportunity to relate the Census directly to New Yorkers’ lived reality, as its data is what ultimately undergirds the government’s response. “Every time they say we need 100,000 ventilators, that's based on the fact that there are X number of people in New York City, and their models are predicting how many people are going to be infected based on that information…If you're at home feeling powerless, here’s something that you can do right away that'll have an impact on the community,” said Shih of the Asian American Federation.

Moisés Pérez-Martínez, vice president of workforce, community and government relations at SOMOS Community Care — a healthcare network with 2,500 providers across Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx — said that providers are emphasizing that filling out the Census early is a great way to avoid further mailings and in-person visits. “We tell them, ‘the Census will go knock on your door if you don't respond to it, and if you don't want that for whatever reason, fill out the Census and they won’t come,’” he said.

“[The count] determines health care funding, it determines funding for first responders, it goes into decisions as to where hospitals are going to be based,” said Anand. When the organization has run its text-a-thons, she said that some community members had expressed annoyance, saying there were bigger concerns right now than the Census. She responds by saying she understands it’s a tough time for everyone, but it doesn’t help to hamstring the country’s ability to respond to such crises.

Health-related groups like SOMOS have unexpectedly found themselves in a unique position to continue raising census awareness, as one of the few types of community organizations that not only haven’t shut down but are even more present in people’s lives. “Every single day, in every single medical practice, there's a different audience,” said Pérez-Martínez. The organization actually filmed short information videos about the count, featuring its doctors, which play in waiting rooms alongside other announcements.

The varied strategies have yet to coalesce into a clear unified agenda, though Shih said that community groups around New York are constantly sharing tips, experiences, and best practices. In the meantime, New York City’s self-response rates have been low but still relatively encouraging given the city’s 2010 rates. As of April 4, only a few weeks into the count, the city’s self-response rate was 33.4%, while it was 38.3% for the state, and 43.9% across the country, according to the CUNY Mapping Service's census project. In 2010 New York City’s self-response rate finished at just 62%, compared to 76% for the country.

“We're lagging. That's not surprising,” said Anand. “We’ve always had an uphill battle in New York, and being at the epicenter of COVID-19, that makes the uphill even steeper. But I think what we will see is, once we get through an initial phase of people figuring out how they're going to provide services, what does this new world look like, more and more organizations are going to be able to get that census messaging out and we will start seeing a change in the response rates. New Yorkers have pulled together before. And we're pulling together now, we just have to do it six feet apart from each other.”

[Read: City Reconfigures 2020 Census Efforts in Response to Coronavirus - and Reports Good Initial News]

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Community Groups Shift Strategies After Coronavirus Blows Up Census Outreach Plans Tue, 07 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
State Allocates Another $10 Million, But Census Efforts Appear Stalled New York 2020 census

Gov. Cuomo at a state census conference in January (photo: Governor's Office)

Before the coronavirus overwhelmed New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo wanted the equivalent of a $70 million effort to ensure that New Yorkers are accurately counted in this year’s Census. That was to include $10 million just appropriated in the state budget approved this past week. But the plans behind the Cuomo administration’s census campaign remain vague at best and nonexistent at worst as the state struggles to combat the coronavirus outbreak that hit after New York state government was already behind in its census efforts.

Before the $10 million just added in the new budget, the state was meant to spend the equivalent of $40 million in agency operations directed at the Census, with various state departments and entities said to be developing plans for how to best encourage the census participation that is so key to the state’s ability to achieve an accurate count and secure many billions of dollars in federal funding and appropriate representation in Congress.

The remaining $20 million had already been included in last year’s budget for direct grants to counties and community-based organizations that can reach hard-to-count populations, but there’s no indication it has been spent.

Despite repeated queries from Gotham Gazette over the last two weeks, spokespeople in the governor’s office and the New York Division of Budget, which reports to the governor, have provided no new information about the status of the state’s census efforts, including what impact the coronavirus has had. The only plans they provided are from before the outbreak, and mostly involve public-facing activities by state agencies that have become practically impossible or pointless to implement given the state’s near-shutdown due to the pandemic.

With the important 2020 Census self-response period now well underway, there is no indication that the state has awarded the $20 million in grants, fully developed the promised agency plans, or altered operations in light of the coronavirus fallout. This stands in stark contrast to both the U.S. Census Bureau and New York City, both of which have laid out clear plans and announced alterations to them as the outbreak unfolded.

As he’s dealt with the coronavirus crisis and negotiated the new state budget, Governor Cuomo has made only passing mention of the Census in recent weeks, at an April 1 news conference, when he encouraged New Yorkers to fill out the census questionnaire.

City and federal officials have noted in recent days that it has never been more important to fill out the Census. The decennial population count goes a long way toward determining levels of federal funding that the state receives for everything from education and infrastructure to social welfare programs. In a public health emergency like the one facing New York right now, census data is invaluable in deciding where emergency responses need to be targeted. The census is also the basis for drawing electoral districts, which in turn dictates how many seats the state will hold in the House of Representatives.

The $20 million grant fund has been in limbo for months. The funding was meant to be distributed based on a report by a state commission formed by the governor and legislative leaders. The commission was created past its deadline and issued a report after months of delay. The money was finally meant to be awarded starting March 10, but the state has given no indication that the money has gone out. A Division of Budget spokesperson referred Gotham Gazette to Empire State Development for information on the funding, then ESD referred the query to the governor’s office, which did not provide any new information.

If people were not mostly confined to their homes given the coronavirus outbreak, state agencies might have had success in ensuring that a wide swathe of New Yorkers were aware of the Census and the value of filling it out, though that would have in part been determined by the various agency plans that have not been made public. The effort is being coordinated by a cross-agency workgroup, according to the Division of Budget.

For instance, the Department of Motor Vehicles would have displayed census ads at its offices across the state, visited by 12 million people every year. Those offices are now closed indefinitely. The MTA planned on running ads on digital screens and distributing census literature at subway platforms and in buses. At monthly customer forums, Metro-North Railroad employees would have distributed flyers and handouts with census information. Station Managers would have done the same as they greeted customers as part of the “Station Talk” initiative. But many millions fewer people are taking public transportation these days.

State agency offices were broadly meant to be part of the effort including the Office of New Americans, the Division of Licensing, the Division of Consumer Protection, the Division of Community Services, the state Athletic Commission, and others. It’s not clear if any of them are doing anything with regard to the Census, even in the coronavirus reality.

Some outreach avenues may still be available as most government services move online-only and the Census is digital-first for the first time ever.

There are about 19.5 million visits to the DMV’s website every year while the agency also has a database of 4 million email addresses – the homepage includes a link to the Census website but nothing more. According to the original plans, the state Department of Taxation & Finance will send out 16 million “informational flashers” through the mail that will this year mention the 2020 Census.

In contrast with the state, New York City launched a far-reaching $40 million effort to count every resident of the city, well over 8 million people estimated to be about 43% of the state’s 19.4 million population. The city awarded $19 million of that money in December to community-based organizations that are considered “trusted voices” in ensuring that people who may otherwise not respond or are wary of the government are accurately counted. The city also quickly pivoted when the coronavirus made on-the-ground operations unfeasible. The city census office renegotiated advertising contracts with the MTA, for instance, as ridership was plummeting and reinvested it into various forms of media that can reach people in their homes, and moved from in-person event plans to digital forums and text-banking.

Laying the early groundwork has also shown some positive results, as the rate of self-response in the first week after the Census launched was higher than in 2010. [Read: City Reconfigures 2020 Census Efforts in Response to Coronavirus — and Reports Good Initial News]

As of April 4, just a few weeks into the count, the city’s self-response rate was 33.4%, the state’s 38.3%, and the national rate 43.9%, according to the CUNY Mapping Service’s Census tracking project. The New York numbers have been somewhat encouraging to officials who hope New York City will be above its low 62% self-response rate in sum for 2010, which compared to 76% for the country.

The current self-response phase, the most important of the Census effort, is now due to last through August 14 after the U.S. Census Bureau made initial adjustments to account for coronavirus’ impact.

[You can fill out the census online here. A digital code is not required though one might have been/be sent to you in the mail. You can also fill it out by phone by calling 844-330-2020. The Bureau also offers assistance and different phone lines for various languages. You can find those here.]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

State Allocates Another $10 Million, But Census Efforts Appear Stalled Sun, 05 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'The Good Thing is Self-Response Hasn't Stopped': Census Bureau’s New York Regional Director on the 2020 Count Amid Coronavirus 2020 census homepage screenshot

2020 Census website to fill out the questionnaire

The U.S. Census Bureau faced a behemoth of an undertaking this year: counting each and every resident across the country’s 50 states and various territories. It’s a task that’s carried out every ten years and requires years of planning and untold levels of individual and collective effort, and can still end up being inaccurate. And all that was before the coronavirus pandemic sent the nation into disarray. 

The decennial Census count determines where and how the federal government allocates hundreds of billions in funding and determines the number of seats that states hold in the House of Representatives, making it of utmost importance for states. For New York, home to many “hard-to-count” populations and on the decline in terms of population and seats in Congress, an accurate count is all the more essential. 

The coronavirus has forced officials at all levels of government to drastically alter census operations. Field programs, planned for the second phase of the Census after the initial self-response period, have been suspended. Outreach campaigns have doubled down on messaging through digital and social media. The U.S. Census Bureau usually hires hundreds of thousands of enumerators across the country to knock on doors and follow up with households that haven’t responded. That hiring has been frozen. 

But there’s still hope. A predominantly digital methodology means the Census is easier than ever to fill out. Self-response continues and the deadline has been extended.  

In an interview on Wednesday, Jeff Behler, director for the Census Bureau's New York Regional Office, sounded a note of optimism while emphasizing that the Bureau has its work cut out for it. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

How has the coronavirus outbreak affected Census operations?

“We stopped all [hiring] because the public health and the health of our employees is of utmost importance. But the good thing is self-response hasn't stopped and that's the great thing about the 2020 Census. You can still go online, you could still fill it out, or call it in over the phone, or if you receive a paper questionnaire in that first mail-out, fill it out, mail it back in. And beginning April 8, we will be mailing paper questionnaires to every household that has yet to respond to the Census. And that's still on track. We're still able to do that. And that's the plan...until we get to the point in the environment in our communities where it's safe to start interactions again in public. Before we ever get to the point where we can knock on doors again, we're going to continue to work with our partners on getting people to self respond.”

“We're calling every applicant that has applied for a census job. We're calling as a courtesy to let them know, ‘Hey, our hiring has been suspended. You're still going to be considered. We ask for your patience, and oh by the way, have you filled out your census?”

On the importance of filling out the Census during a pandemic...

“I was just on a webinar where the Mayor of Syracuse was talking about what better way to support your community right now during this pandemic than to help out the future of our health systems, our hospitals, our emergency services by filling out your census, and ensuring your neighbors get counted, that your coworkers and people you may worship with, that they also fill out the census. That's a great way to support our communities so that we have enough hospital beds, we have enough emergency service personnel, we have enough clinics and hospitals or vaccines available based upon the true population numbers.”

Are there any encouraging signs around the early self-response, particularly in New York?

“I think New York State’s at 31.1%. That's amazing. Given that New York City is the epicenter of this whole pandemic, for roughly a third of households to go online or to call us over the phone or fill it out on paper is amazing...There's a lot a lot of counting left to do but this is a great start, and our partners and the Census Bureau, we're not pushing a pause button right now just because of this pandemic. We're reengineering the things that we can do with the resources we have to continue to push people to self respond.”

New York City came to an agreement to share homeless shelter data with the Census Bureau for the first time to aid in the count. How is that working?

“When you get a city like New York that was able to pull that data together from so many different shelters, that's huge. Because especially at a time like this, shelters will not open their doors to us in a month from now or maybe even two months from now because the pandemic may still be there. So it just shows the urgency and the willingness that New York City has to ensure they get a complete and accurate count.”

What about the street homeless?

“Actually we would have gone out at 12:01 a.m. this morning and conducted a homeless count for people who aren't staying in shelters, who aren’t staying in group homes. These are people who are living in the woods or in the forest or on a park bench. So we'll still be conducting that operation. The timing of that operation's still yet to be determined. We have to figure that out because we can't go out at a time where the public's health is at risk.”

On counting university students that live off campus...

“Just about every school in our region…has gone to virtual school for the rest of the semester. So many kids, both on campus and off campus, now live at home with their parents, whether that's in a different state or whether it's a different city within the state. We need to make sure those students get counted where they usually live or stay at college. So we're working with college universities. We feel confident in the way we count students who live in college and in dormitories. It’s those off campus students that we're [concerned about].”

[You can fill out the 2020 Census here]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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'The Good Thing is Self-Response Hasn't Stopped': Census Bureau’s New York Regional Director on the 2020 Count Amid Coronavirus Thu, 02 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'Census Day' is Here; What to Know as the 2020 Count Proceeds cm carlina rivera press

2020 Census Day is here; many New Yorkers have already filled out the Census (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

It’s officially “Census Day” -- April 1 -- and though the decennial population count began two weeks ago, by now virtually all households across the United States should have received some form of notification from the U.S. Census Bureau informing them of the ways they can fill out the demographic questionnaire. Census Day itself is more of a marker, not a deadline, to rally people to fill out the questionnaire and the date at which households should count their members.

But as 2020 Census Day is recognized, the process this year has been marred by the coronavirus outbreak, forcing city, state, and federal officials to course-correct to ensure that each and every resident of the country is counted.

The Census determines levels of federal funding that states receive for all manner of programs, from nutrition assistance for low-income families and children’s health care to education, transportation, infrastructure, and more. It also determines how many seats each state gets in the the U.S. House of Representatives, and forms the basis for drawing electoral districts for municipalities, state legislatures, and the House.

After a very poor showing on self-response rates and a likely undercount of the city’s and state’s populations in 2010, New York leaders have put much more focus on and funding into the 2020 effort, to varying degrees. New York City government in particular has dedicated a great deal of energy and money into the effort to count its population, especially its many “hard-to-count” communities and demographics. The state’s efforts have lagged, and the federal government has been underfunding the Census Bureau (and Trump administration officials attempted to add a citizenship question that does not appear on the form but may have instilled additional fear of filling it out among many immigrants).

The Census can be filled out online, which is predominantly the methodology being prioritized this year. Most households will have received a digital code from the Census Bureau, though it is not necessary for filling out the questionnaire. The Census can also be filled out on the phone by calling 844-330-2020 or through a paper questionnaire mailed out by the Census Bureau, though only a limited number of households received those in the mail.

On March 12, the initial self-response phase of the Census began. As of March 31, according to the CUNY Mapping Service’s Census project, 31.1% of New Yorkers have already answered the ten questions asked by the Census, compared with the nationwide average of 36.2% so far. City officials were encouraged when the response rate by the end of the first week of the self-response phase was higher than it was at the same time ten years ago. Even now, the rate by March 31 was about the same as 2010 despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus outbreak. 

In 2010, New York State’s overall self-response rate was about 76%, nearly the same as the national average, while New York City’s rate was only 62%. The low-self response rates in the past are indicative of the concentrations of hard-to-count populations in New York, including seniors, children under the age of 5, homeless people, public housing residents, predominantly African-American communities, Native Americans, undocumented immigrants, individuals who cannot speak English or have limited English proficiency, amond others.

New York City is estimated to be home to about 8.4 million people, according to the latest Census data available, about 43% of the state’s 19.4 million population.

Officials have also had to overhaul their plans for conducting census outreach, as the coronavirus has brought the state, and particularly the city, to a near standstill. New York City benefited from having worked for months on a broad outreach campaign, with $40 million allocated by the de Blasio administration and the City Council to fund the entire effort. That included $19 million in grants to 157 community-based organizations to reach hard-to-count communities directly.

The city census office recently held a two-day text-banking campaign, with 700 volunteers reaching nearly a million New Yorkers directly, it reported. Of all the people texted, 116,159 replied, and of them, 35,116 had already completed the Census while another 4,925 promised to do so, the office said. They also released a new PSA featuring Bronx-native rapper Cardi B that’s running on TV and digital media.

But the city was forced to suspend all in-person outreach, which is particularly necessary for the second phase of the Census – the enumeration phase, which involves people hired by the Census Bureau to knock on doors and seek responses from those households that fail to self-respond. Enumeration can yield inaccurate data and is already a daunting task without the limitations posed by the coronavirus. The city has instead redoubled its efforts to reach people digitally, through television, radio, and print ads shifting money away from other pre-pandemic plans. Phone- and text-banking have replaced on-the-ground pleas to fill out the Census.

The U.S. Census Bureau also cancelled its field operations till at least April 1, and extended the self-response deadline from July 31 to August 14. New York State, however, has been playing catch up on its census efforts for well over a year. The governor promised a $60-million effort that involved public-facing activities by state agencies, which never seemed to get off the ground and now mostly cannot because of the coronavirus. Of that funding, $20 million was meant to be distributed to community organizations but has not yet been doled out.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

note - This article has been updated to clarify that the self-response rate as of March 31 is nearly the same as it was in 2010.

'Census Day' is Here; What to Know as the 2020 Count Proceeds Tue, 31 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Reconfigures 2020 Census Efforts in Response to Coronavirus — and Reports Good Initial News 2 covid census

Census organizing efforts before coronavirus (photo: @JulieMenin)

Officials at the city, state, and federal levels had for years planned varying efforts to conduct a robust outreach campaign this year for the 2020 Census, to ensure an accurate count of New York’s population that will determine the level of federal funding the state receives and its representation in Congress. But the coronavirus outbreak has upended those plans, which relied heavily on person-to-person contact, especially in the hardest-to-count communities, and officials are beginning to course correct as they worry that an accurate count may be more necessary now than ever before. 

With as many as 17,856 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the city as of Wednesday afternoon, out of a total of 30,811 cases statewide, New York City has quickly become the country’s epicenter of the pandemic. The very density in the city that has contributed to the rapid spread of the virus is also partly what makes it a city where there are numerous challenges to conducting a precise population count.

“We're in unprecedented times, we’re in a crisis of epic proportions,” said New York City 2020 Census Director Julie Menin, in a phone interview, noting that city has had to shift its census strategy, which had been months in the making and was originally intended to press a large ground operation into service. “Post-COVID, we've made a number of very quick shifts,” she added.

The two main phases of the Census are the initial self-response phase, where individuals are encouraged to fill out the census themselves, and the enumeration phase, which involves enumerators hired by the U.S. Census Bureau going door-to-door to count those people who did not respond. 

In a letter sent last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio called on U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham to extend the current timelines for the Census, including by delaying the self-response deadline from July 31 to September 30; the Bureau has already extended it to August 14. De Blasio also said the Bureau should postpone its early non-response follow-up efforts to the end of summer, otherwise it would miss the many students of colleges and universities that have left the city amid the outbreak and could return later. The Bureau has already postponed that operation from April 9 to April 23, while also changing its protocols for counting people in group quarters. On the same day as the mayor’s letter, the Bureau also suspended all its field operations till April 1.

“Maintaining the current timeframe for census operations in New York City would not only risk severely damaging the accuracy and credibility of the population count, it would also likely exacerbate an already severe public health crisis,” the mayor wrote. 

In New York City’s dense population are concentrations of those who tend to have lower self-response rates such as seniors, homeless people, residents of public housing, people with limited English-proficiency, non-English speakers, African-American communities of varying income bands, Native Americans, undocumented immigrants, people living in group quarters, and more. 

Self responses yield the most accurate data. But the city’s self-response rate of 62% in 2010 was far below the national and state averages of 76%. That’s why city officials were hell-bent on making sure to invest early in efforts to make sure people proactively fill out the census questionnaire. New York City’s $40 million allocation towards census outreach, including $19 million in direct grants to 157 community-based organizations, was the largest investment in such an effort. 

The city’s focus on the first phase seems to have already paid some dividends. Early self-response rates are up from 2010, though this might also owe to the fact that the Census Bureau is mostly asking people to fill out the Census online for the first time. The city’s self-response rate was 16.8% as of March 24 – 16.3% in the Bronx, 15.1%, in Brooklyn, 19.5% in Manhattan, 15.9% in Queens, and 19% in Staten Island. By March 23 in 2010, the self-response rate was only 6% citywide.

But the city had hoped to conduct a broad field operation, particularly through the community-based organizations that were granted funding that would help them reach communities that they interact with each day, that can often go overlooked by the government or may not trust the government for various reasons.

Menin’s office had created Neighborhood Organizing Census Committees that had trained thousands of volunteers, who in turn were training others, to conduct in-person census outreach. There were meant to be 300 pop-up centers where people could fill out the Census. There was an $8 million advertising campaign, with $3 million of it pegged for community and ethnic media. And there were partnerships with private sector businesses and city agencies (110 public library branches were to provide census assistance).

As the actual scope of the COVID-19 pandemic became evident, the city census office quickly shifted tack. They suspended all the door-to-door and street canvassing operations that its partner CBOs were carrying out. Organizations shifted to phone- and text-banking. The office reconfigured its advertising approach, clawing back all its ad contracts with the MTA as ads on the subway, with its plummeting ridership, will no longer have the reach they originally envisioned. Instead, they’re doubling down on digital, social media, television, and radio ads.

“Now it’s more vital than ever, in light of COVID-19,” Menin said, to get an accurate count. “Because funding for hospitals, funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program is directly linked to the Census. We want to make sure that New Yorkers know in this time of crisis for our cities, it becomes more important than ever to feel the sense of that.”

She noted one particularly germane instance of census data being used for a public health response. During the recent measles outbreak in the city, the city Department of Health used census data to determine how many vaccines it would need.    

On Sunday and Monday, the city conducted a “Text Out the Count” campaign – 1,157 people, mostly volunteers, texted 978,195 New Yorkers and received 116,159 responses. Of those, 35,116 said they had already filled out the census while another 4,925 promised to do so, according to the city census office.

“One of the ways in which we've pivoted is that we now know we need to double down on that strategy,” said Amit Bagga, deputy director of NYC Census 2020, noting that the infrastructure was already in place. “We've built it in such a way that it is allowing us to be nimble quickly and pivot very, very quickly.”

While the city had the benefit of laying months of groundwork, including 500 events around the city before the Census even began, the state has repeatedly dragged its feet. When Gotham Gazette inquired, the state had little to offer about how its own efforts have undoubtedly been hobbled by the pandemic.

Governor Cuomo had pledged a $60 million overall effort, including $20 million in grant funding that has not been sent out to nonprofits, many of which are already working on census outreach. The rest of the spending was meant to reflect state agency operations shifted toward census work, while the governor was seeking another $10 million in the upcoming state budget. 

Much of the state’s plans prior to the outbreak, which were provided by the Division of Budget, involved using the public-facing aspects of state entities to get out the census message. For example, the MTA would have used its ad space to tell people to fill out the Census. The Metro-North Railroad could have informed people at its monthly customer forums and “Station Talk” initiatives, where station managers meet and greet commuters. 

The State Athletic Commission would have provided census materials at its events. Various departments such as the Divisions of Licensing, the Division of Consumer Protection, and the Department of Motor Vehicles would have posted signage at their offices, visited by millions each year. 

But virtually all those proposed efforts fall apart when the public is told to remain at home to avoid exposure to the COVID-19 outbreak. There are no long lines at the DMV. Subways are running with far fewer passengers. The Athletic Commission is suspending events.  

Asked specifically about how the state was revamping its efforts, spokespeople for the governor did not provide any details or make anyone available for comment. Freeman Klopott, a state Division of Budget spokesperson, said in a statement, “State agencies continue to advance outreach plans and deploy resources as applicable in the current environment as part of the statewide campaign to ensure every New Yorker is counted. As soon as is possible, direct outreach efforts will move forward.”

But with the governor himself predicting that the crisis could last up to nine months, it’s hard to imagine how soon direct outreach will be possible. State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who has focused on the Census, said he’s hoping the state will recalibrate its efforts but hasn’t heard anything about how.

“For those of us who have been talking about the Census for the past six months, this is the worst case scenario,” Myrie said. “This is exactly what we did not want to happen. We did not want the count to begin and for us to be behind the ball. It's why we were so persistent in our calls for the release of the money.” 

He also noted that the federal government’s lackluster response to New York’s pleas for more resources to fight the outbreak are the very debate central to the Census. “Part of the fight with this crisis is not getting what we deserve from the federal government,” he said. “New York is at the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, yet we are not receiving the requisite resources. That's the exact argument that we have made for why the Census should be the most important thing, because we don't get the federal money that we deserve on a consistent basis. So I'm hoping that we can invest to avoid that catastrophe.”

[You can fill out the census online here. A digital code is not required though one might have been/be sent to you in the mail. You can also fill it out by phone by calling 844-330-2020. The Bureau also offers assistance and different phone lines for various languages. You can find those here.]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Reconfigures 2020 Census Efforts in Response to Coronavirus — and Reports Good Initial News Wed, 25 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York City to Share Homeless Shelter Data with U.S. Census Bureau in Unprecedented Agreement census julie

Efforts continue to get every New Yorker counted in 2020 Census (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New York City has reached a first-of-its kind agreement with the U.S. Census Bureau to transfer data on the city’s sheltered homeless population in a way that is intended to negate the need for census enumerators to perform their own separate count.

Through the agreement, which was described to Gotham Gazette by an official from the city’s census office, the city will compile data on the roughly 60,000 people expected to be sheltered at around 650 sites in the five boroughs as it stands on a particular designated night. The data will then be provided to the Census Bureau via a secure file transfer protocol.

The information will include all the city has available to fill out standard census details like name, age, sex, and address (which will be the address of an individual’s shelter). Like the rest of the information collected as part of the once-in-a-decade count, it will be protected from release by federal law and cannot be shared with other components of the federal government, such as immigration enforcement authorities.

“This plan will ensure that every single homeless person in New York City is properly counted while also accounting for community health care needs during the COVID pandemic,” said Julie Menin, the director of New York City's 2020 Census office, referencing the ongoing global public health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus. The discussions between the city and the Census Bureau preceded the onset of the pandemic, but the agreement has proved particularly auspicious as the virus frustrates census outreach efforts.

Typically, the Census Bureau takes two separate and complementary approaches in attempting to count an area’s total homeless population: there’s a count of the “unsheltered” population, which includes people staying in informal spaces like subway stations, outdoor encampments, and parks, and a count of the “sheltered” population, which includes those staying at formal homeless shelters.

For this latter phase, known as the Service-Based Enumeration (SBE), census employees coordinate directly with shelters and service providers like food pantries to arrive in-person and conduct interviews with residents and clients. At shelters, their goal is to count or at least estimate the total number of people in that facility on the day they visit (this year, the SBE was slated to run between March 30 and April 1, but has been postponed).

Since 1981, homeless New Yorkers have had a legal “right to shelter,” which has meant that the vast majority of the homeless population is in sheltered as opposed to unsheltered situations, with the street population estimated at a comparatively low 3,600. (In terms of the overall homeless population, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated a higher number than the city, closer to 80,000, which accounts for a wide variety of shelter settings, not only those run by the city’s Department of Homeless Services.)

This makes the SBE particularly important for getting an accurate count of the city’s population and its demographics and living situations. However, recent events have presented a cascade of complications, starting with the Trump administration’s general posture of hostility to immigrants and its very public attempts to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire, which were ultimately blocked by the courts.

Paired with initiatives like the public charge rule and the administration’s attempts to cut food stamps and other social service programs, city officials came to believe last year that federal employees of any stripe might be viewed with suspicion in the shelters, and they wouldn’t be able to get an accurate count.

“The very notion that federal officials would be able to have access to our shelter sites was essentially a non-starter for all of our providers,” said one city census official speaking on background. “We knew for a fact that the Census Bureau's proposed approach was not actually going to yield them the results that they wanted.”

Shelters are operated by nonprofits under contract with the city to provide services to distinct populations, such as families with minor children or single adult men or women. Intake is handled centrally by the Department of Social Services (DSS) and its component Department of Homeless Services (DHS), which then refers applicants to particular providers. As such, the city possesses pretty granular and real-time data on the shelter population, including all the data points that form the basis of the census count.

Ian Hull, the deputy regional director for the Census Bureau’s New York region, said that the Bureau had been very open to the idea when city officials broached it last year, in part because they agreed that it would yield better data. “Oftentimes, when we go to shelter, people are not interested in doing a one-on-one interview, which is one of the enumeration methods… in that case, we just do headcount,” he said. “[DSS/DHS] actually have more data, and so they should be able to provide us things that we're normally seeking, such as age, date of birth, race and ethnicity, things such as that.”

The agreement now proves particularly opportune as the Bureau, and society at large, contends with the global pandemic set off by the novel coronavirus, an aggressive pathogen that spreads primarily through person-to-person contact, including through infected but asymptomatic people. The virus has spread quickly in New York City, with over 3,600 confirmed cases as of Thursday morning even as testing has lagged.

On March 15, the Bureau announced changes to the way it would conduct Group Quarters counts, which include sites like college dormitories and nursing homes; on March 18, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced that all field operations would be suspended until April 1, including the SBE. The original snapshot date for the city’s data transfer to the Census Bureau was March 31, but the postponements mean it will be pushed back. Hull said that the SBE had to “count everyone nationwide on basically the same three day period,” and it was unclear when exactly that would take place.

Census employees moving across shelters and interacting with large numbers of people who are themselves occupying shared spaces with dozens of others could be a perfect storm for disease propagation. However, under the agreement, enumerators would never have to enter the shelters at all, and could simply rely on the city data.

The fact of such a data transfer occurring isn’t itself unprecedented. “Other cities and other shelters have the ability to provide the data to us administratively,” said Hull, and some number of them do every count. However, this appears to be the first time a city, and certainly the largest city in the nation, has reached a specific bilateral agreement with the Bureau outside of its standard data transfer systems, partly on account of the sheer amount and complexity of the transfer. “From those standpoints, it’s definitely a one-of-a-kind of agreement, but I think it's important to note that the actual enumeration method, if you will, is not,” he said.

While the model is promising in some ways, under current circumstances the precedent is of somewhat limited applicability. By and large, the Census Bureau attempts to gather information for every American household, and only attempts group counts in limited circumstances, like for homeless populations and senior homes. Enumerators will still have to go apartment-to-apartment for households that don’t respond, presumably once the extant threat of the virus has abated. This is the first year the Census is being conducted online-first, with most households encouraged to go straight to the internet to fill out the questionnaire, and more than 10 million across the country have done so already.

The agreement between the city and the Bureau on the homeless shelter population could set a precedent other municipalities could attempt to follow. Amit Bagga, the deputy director of NYC Census 2020, told Gotham Gazette, “we found that the process of working with the Census Bureau to be incredibly collaborative and productive,” largely because, at a time when New York and the federal government are locking horns over all sorts of public policy issues, the interests of the city and the interests of the Census Bureau aligned.

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

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New York City to Share Homeless Shelter Data with U.S. Census Bureau in Unprecedented Agreement Fri, 20 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The 2020 Census Has Officially Begun, Here's What To Know 3 2020 census

The 2020 Census begins now (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The 2020 Census process kicks off today -- Thursday March 12 -- as the U.S. Census Bureau began sending out mailers across the country and its territories to inform people about how to fill out the decennial questionnaire, which was also just made available online.

Every ten years, the Census attempts to collect information on every resident of the United States and its five territories. In all, the Census Bureau asks ten biographical questions about individuals – name, age, residential location, race, ethnicity, number of children in the same household, and more. (After a protracted battle, there is no question about citizenship status.)

Census data is used to determine how the federal government distributes billions of dollars in funding to states for everything from infrastructure and education to social welfare programs like housing rental vouchers and food assistance for low-income families. The Census is also used to draw electoral districts at the local, state, and federal levels and affects how many seats a particular state will hold in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Census count officially began on January 21 in Toksook Bay, Alaska, as is the custom, but on Thursday the federal government began the broader process in earnest. It will last through July 31.

For the first time, the Census Bureau is largely relying on digital methodology rather than paper questionnaires, at least for the initial effort to count the population. That could pose a challenge for parts of the state and city that lack access to high-speed internet and technological infrastructure.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer noted in a July report last year that 29% of city households, representing about 2.2 million residents, did not have home access to broadband internet. Even statewide, though 83% of households have internet access, many of them do not have high-speed internet, according to a report by the New York State Complete Count Commission. There are some efforts underway to overcome the so-called digital divide, including library partnerships.

Between March 12 and March 20, most households will receive a mailer that contains instructions on how to fill out the Census online or on the phone, while a smaller number of households will receive a paper questionnaire right away. According to the CUNY Mapping Service’s Census project, for New York State, about 97.2% will receive a mailer from the Census Bureau; only 2.8% of housing units will initially receive hand-delivered Census packets.

About 15.2% (or 1,258,303) of all New York households will receive a Census packet that also includes an English-only paper questionnaire; another 6.2% (or 513,296) will receive an English and Spanish questionnaire. 

The Census is carried out in phases. The initial phase is focused on getting people to self-respond, which yields the most accurate data. In 2010, the average self-response rate at the national level was 76% (which was about the same for New York State) while in New York City it was only 62% and is projected to drop to 58% this year because of fears of data privacy, general apathy, and a sense of suspicion and distrust of the federal government. 

The self-response rate is used to determine which populations and areas are considered “hard-to-count” – for 2010, the threshold was a 73% self-response rate. Hard-to-count segments of the population include native Americans, children under the age of five, seniors, homeless individuals, people living in group quarters, public housing residents, those who cannot speak English or have limited English proficiency, immigrants (particularly undocumented immigrants), and African-Americans at all income levels

Parts of the state and city have strong concentrations of such populations. Brooklyn (or Kings County), for instance, was the hardest to count county in 2010, with only 67% of households self-responding to the Census. 

People filling out the Census are meant to tell the Census Bureau where they live as of April 1, which is Census Day. The last day for self-responses is July 31. 

Over three days, between March 30 and April 1, the Census Bureau will undertake a count of homeless people across the nation. On the first day, enumerators (individuals hired by the Bureau to conduct an in-person count) will track people at shelters. On the second day, they will count people at soup kitchens and mobile food vans, while on the third, they will tally homeless people living on the streets. 

Through April, the Bureau will also begin counting individuals living in group living arrangements who could otherwise slip through the cracks such as students living on and off campus, in senior centers, military barracks, correctional facilities, and even maritime and military ships. 

In May and running through July, the second main phase of the Census will launch, with the Census Bureau beginning its operation to count those households that haven’t responded to the questionnaire. Those households will be visited several times by enumerators if needed, and, if they are unsuccessful in reaching anyone who lives at a particular household, an enumerator may obtain information from a neighboring “proxy” household or use the neighboring hosuehold’s information to impute information about the non-responsive household. The Census Bureau will also attempt to fill in gaps in data through administrative records. 

All these methods, however, tend to be prone to errors and produce inaccurate data, according to demographic experts, making self-response the preferred method for obtaining data.That is why the Census Bureau, and state and local officials, have been trying to drive home the point that it is in the best interest of an individual and their community that they fill out the form. For instance, if the number of children under the age of 5 are undercounted in a community, it could affect federal funding for childcare programs or the decisions that local and state authorities make about school funding.   

The city and state are undertaking efforts, though with differing levels of urgency, to ensure an accurate count. New York City has put $40 million towards its census outreach, which includes $19 million in direct grants that have been doled out to community-based organizations that can reach hard-to-count populations on the ground. Taking note of the online methodology and disparities in internet access across the city, officials have made it a point to provide tablets to community partners and are collaborating with the library system to provide Census assistance at 110 branches, among other measures.

The state’s preparations have been somewhat lackluster in comparison. Though the state Legislature approved $20 million in funding in last year’s budget for community outreach, similar to the city’s grants, none of that state funding has been distributed. Governor Andrew Cuomo has also pledged that state agencies will be carrying out various census activities that will equate to about $40 million in spending, and he is also seeking another $10 million in the budget for the next fiscal year that begins April 1. 

In all, the Census Bureau will provide translation services for 59 languages besides English. In New York, State Senator Julia Salazar is hoping to expand translation services currently available through the Department of State to ensure maximum outreach in a state where more than 200 languages are spoken by residents.

[Read Gotham Gazette’s full 2020 Census coverage here.]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The 2020 Census Has Officially Begun, Here's What To Know Wed, 11 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'They're Conditioned to Just Ignore or Erase Us': Native Americans in New York Fear Another Census Undercount native american comm

American Indian Community House is working on the 2020 Census (photo: @AICHNYC)

The decennial Census is an exercise in counting every single resident of the United States of America, but the tragic irony of the process is that it routinely undercounts the very people who first called this continent their home. Native Americans, who now make up about 1% of New York State’s population, worry that it may happen again this year, perpetuating the official apathy to their people that they have come to expect from the federal government.

About 194,000 New Yorkers identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, according to U.S. Census population estimates as of July 1, 2019, though that number could very well be low given undercounting issues. More than half of that state population lives in New York City, comprising one of, if not the largest urban Native American populations across the country.

As with many other segments of the population, Native Americans are considered “hard-to-count” – a term used for those groups of people where the rate of initial self-response to the Census was below 73% in the 2010 Census. That status stems from various factors including income levels, geographical distribution, language diversity, and of course, their complicated relationship with the federal government.

The 2020 count, which begins Thursday, March 12, will be additionally complicated by its heavy reliance on a digital questionnaire, which requires internet infrastructure that is not as readily available in rural parts of the state and on reservations. There are ten American Indian territories in New York.

There’s much at stake if there’s an undercount. Census data determines the redrawing of federal, state, and local electoral districts and the number of seats New York is allocated in the House of Representatives, and it forms the basis for the distributions of many billions of dollars in federal aid for everything from infrastructure projects to education and healthcare services. Inaccurate data could mean underfunding of programs for the most underserved populations, including food stamps and housing vouchers.

In 2010, nationwide, American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations were undercounted by 4.9%; for those living outside of reservations, the statistical error was close to zero, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2012. But that overall undercount was far higher than for other populations. There was a 2.1% undercount of the black population and 1.5% for Hispanics, while non-Hispanic whites were overcounted by 0.8%, according to the Census Bureau.

The Census Bureau has acknowledged the challenges of reaching Native Americans and has been working to ensure an accurate count. “With the Native American community, that's something we work on throughout the decade,” said Jeff Behler, director for the U.S. Census Bureau's New York Regional Office.

Behler laid out the procedures necessary for better counting Native Americans, particularly those who live on tribal lands and reservations. “We always follow the protocol as defined by the tribe itself,” he said. Coordinating with tribal leadership, the Bureau could choose several ways of conducting the Census including hand-delivering census questionnaires or sending an enumerator to go door-to-door, instead of mailing out questionnaires.

The Bureau also typically hires people who live on tribal land to act as enumerators that can personally reach and count the residents of the land. The Bureau has also partnered with 1,500 specialists across the country who are direct representatives to communities, which includes tribal partnership specialists.

As with efforts at the state and city level, the U.S. Census Bureau is focused on encouraging Native Americans to self-respond, which yields the most accurate data. For that, Behler said, the most important step has been educating and enlisting tribal leaders who can then spread the message to their people about the importance of filling out the Census and press tribal resources into that effort. For instance, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, located in Akwesasne by the border with Canada, will use a community center to help their members fill out the Census online, he said.

“We have this saying that the Census is a national event, but in order to be successful, it has to be conducted at the local level,” Behler said. “We have to make this their Census and we certainly understand we need their input in order to do that.”

“When it's coming from that trusted voice, it penetrates so much deeper,” he added. “We certainly understand that the message can be the same but it's the messenger that sometimes is the most important thing. The Census Bureau knows we are not necessarily the best messenger.”

Tribal members seem to agree. “There has been, and there still is some apprehension amongst our own community members to participate in any type of processes that are external in nature, specifically those that come from the federal government, given our history and our relationship,” said Brendan White, communications director for the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and a member of its Census-focused Tribal Complete Count Committee, in an interview. The committee has been disseminating information about the Census through radio and print ads, signs, newsletters, and even distributing tote bags (after the state’s recent plastic bag ban went into effect) to try to drive home the message that filling out the Census is in the best interest of tribal members.

“We are trying to dispel any myths that people have and to assure them that the information that's being collected by the Census Bureau is solely to count the population in the households that exist to ensure that we receive the federal funding that we need to meet the growing needs of our community,” he said. “One thing that is helping us in getting that message across is that we are ensuring that the federal government fulfills its fiduciary responsibility to Indian country...because we drive on these roads, we utilize healthcare services, we have kids who are going to college that need scholarships. And just like any other community, we have our
own natural events that require an emergency response and a lot of our services are dependent on federal funding.”

Much of the effort is driven by the tribe itself, with assistance from the Native American Rights Fund and the National Congress of American Indians, which launched its own “Indian Country Counts” nationwide initiative.

New York State has yet to take any specific measures to conduct outreach among Native Americans. Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a $70 million effort that includes $20 million in direct funding for community-based organizations and advocates that can reach hard-to-count populations. But while the state has been soliciting applications for that $20 million, it has yet to be released and it’s unclear if any groups that directly serve Native American populations will receive any funding.

A spokesperson for the Department of State simply referred Gotham Gazette to Behler’s office for comment, while emphasizing that the state’s effort is directed at all New Yorkers that live in hard-to-count communities. Most of New York’s Indian territories are located in the western part of the state, with other territories in central and northern regions.

New York City on the other hand has already awarded $19 million to community-based organizations conducting Census outreach, as part of a $40 million city effort to increase the count. Among those organizations is American Indian Community House, which received a $50,000 grant to do its work.

Melissa Oakes, executive director of AICH, was disappointed though. AICH has partnered with two other organizations to create a “consortium,” she said, to count Native Americans. The funding they received was half of what they sought. “That says a lot about how important our data matters, but that’s the reality of what we have to deal with,” she said.

Oakes, who is Mohawk, said the U.S. Census Bureau seems to have a particular blind spot when it comes to Native Americans living in urban centers like New York City, where the population is spread out across the five boroughs. “We're the most underrepresented and underfunded and it's almost like an erasure of urban Natives,” she said. “It's like, unless you're on the reservation, they don't want to deal with us. And I think it's irresponsible and neglectful.”

AICH, which based in downtown Manhattan and represents members of 72 different tribes, is taking various steps to reach the city’s Native American population, adding a Census outreach element to cultural events. Through June, they are hosting bi-weekly “maker sessions,” workshops to draw New Yorkers with a native background to train them and others in producing native art. Attendees will be asked to fill out pledge cards saying they will fill out the Census, or will be aided in completing the Census once it launches.

AICH also hosts various trainings on social justice and civil rights issues. Those will involve a Census component as well. They plan to organize monthly brunches for tribal elders, with a focus on the Census. AICH will also have a weeks-long art installation at Governor’s Island on the Native American community, with several related programs that will emphasize the importance of the Census. And they’ll also dedicate staff to help people fill out the Census at various street fairs over the spring and summer.

One of the issues AICH faces, Oakes said, is a massive loss of funding from the federal government, which has left the organization struggling to keep a permanent home while looking for more physical locations to conduct Census operations. She is hoping the city can offer a vacant space to create a community center.

“They do it for a lot of other communities and I don't understand why the original people of the territory of the land are being ignored,” she said. “It's almost like they need to unlearn how to treat us...It's like a conditioning. They're conditioned to just ignore us or erase us or shove us under the carpet like we don’t exist.”

The city has been focused on increasing the initial self-response rate to the Census, which for the five boroughs was 62% in 2010, compared to the national average of 76%; the Census Bureau projects New York’s self-response rate to fall as low as 58% this year due to several factors that broadly apply to the Census process including “apathy, privacy concerns, fear of repercussions, and general distrust of government.” City officials say organizations like AICH are the best messengers to prevent that.

“Funding an organization like American Indian Community House is very, very important to us because we know that American Indian Community House has a unique blend of cultural programming, linguistic competence, and also direct social service provision that enables them to really potentially be very effective in ensuring that the Native population is participating in the Census,” said Amit Bagga, Deputy Director of NYC Census 2020, a city-government office set up by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Bagga added, “This is the first and only time in New York City's history that the city has ever constructed a program such as this. There have never been any public dollars that have been put into this type of community engagement and civic engagement, particularly for Native communities.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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'They're Conditioned to Just Ignore or Erase Us': Native Americans in New York Fear Another Census Undercount Sun, 08 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000