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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Will the 2010 Census "Steal" New Yorkers?

Throughout the 1990s, New York City's population appeared to grow from about 7.35 million until it reached slightly over 8.0 million for the first time ever. Since then, growth continued, and by 2006 New York City was said to have somewhat in excess of 8.2 million people. As preparations ramp up for the 2010 Census, most would expect that that count will register New York City's continued gains. Yet when the Census numbers are announced, New York City's renewed growth could appear to have halted and even reversed -- not because fewer people actually live here but because of new Census procedures.

Censuses, including the ones in the United States, are really about two things: power and money. The main use of the count is to reapportion Congress and redraw lines for the state legislature and local government bodies. Simply put, every extra person in New York City (and by extension New York State) leads to extra power for the state and the city, and to additional government funds.

The growth in largely Democratic New York City in 1990s, as depicted by the Census, along with declines in population in more Republican areas upstate, led to a serious problem for the GOP-dominated State Senate. Instead of simply shifting some seats from Republican areas to Democratic ones, as the Census would seem to have indicated, the Senate tried to instead solve its dilemma by adding an extra seat to the body and forcing massive redrawing of lines in New York City, while keeping them largely intact in Long Island and upstate.

Counting More New Yorkers

While more people did live in New York City 2000 than in 1990, a large share of the growth in population recorded by the 2000 Census is due to the efforts of the Population Division of the Department of City Planning and its director Joseph Salvo. Indeed, perhaps half the growth can be attributed to their efforts to include formerly overlooked households in the Census and make sure they were counted. Some of these households were never reached, so the data on them came from their neighbors, with the Census Bureau filling in some of the blanks. Now the bureau headquarters in Washington is challenging the methods and approaches that led to New York City's surprising growth. In effect, it claims, some of the households counted do not actually exist.

For the 2000 count, the Census Bureau allowed local authorities to examine and update the local address file and add the following types of units:

  • New construction
  • Conversions of buildings from non-residential to residential use
  • Garages converted to residences
  • Attics or basements used as apartments
  • Subdividing that yields apartments

The city planning department counted both doorbells and mailboxes to try to assess the many different types of conversions that had taken place. Many of these homes, of course, are illegal and do not have an official Certificate of Occupancy. Nonetheless, many people live in such apartments and should be counted. In 2000, the planning department suggested the addition of 439,069 additional housing units. The Census Bureau eventually accepted about 370,000 of these residences, including about 86,000 after an appeal by the city. The homes from the appeal alone would have added on the order of 200,000 to 250,000 New Yorkers to the Census.

Since 1960, the census has sent long forms, requesting more detailed information, to a certain percentage of homes. The 2010 Census will no longer have a long form. The questions that formerly were part of the "long form, are now administered yearly in the American Community Survey, which began in 2005 and first was released in 2006.

Beyond that change, the planning for the 2010 Census includes a much more restrictive definition of what constitutes a household. Indeed, Census staff suggests that if there is any question about how many units are in a given structure they will consult with the property owner, who very likely may have illegally divided it, to find out how many unites are "actually" in the building. Some landlords, of course, will be loathe to report their illegal units, and will deny their existence. Furthermore, there seem to be plans to send only one form to each address, even though there are many instances where two households share a mailbox. If these procedures are put into place, New York City could very well lose hundreds of thousands of population in the 2010 Census Count.

An Alternative Plan

Joseph Salvo suggests that the Census use a method called update and enumerate. In that method, questionnaires are not mailed. Instead Census workers walk blocks with a list of addresses in hand, knock on doors, update addresses and count residents. This method is used in other places, such as resorts and Native American reservations, where it is difficult to ascertain the number of households in a given area. In sections of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, where there are many households and residents in some structures, such a method done properly would lead to a more accurate count than mailing forms.

The 2010 Census will be used for reapportionment and redistricting and population estimates, as well as providing the basis for all population reporting for the community survey in the coming decade. As such, its accuracy is vital for New York City and the share of power and money it will have both in the United States and in the state.

Unless New York City's special characteristics are taken into account, it is plain that the city will be a loser in the 2010 Census, as it was for decades and decades until 2000. We are lucky to have Joseph Salvo and his Department of City Planning team as our advocates. Without them, New York City would have never officially reached the 8 million made and in 2010 could turn out to be below it once again.

(The discussion of LUCA in the 2000 and 2010 Census is drawn from Joseph Salvo's presentation to New York Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, September 27, 2007. That presentation is available on the Web site. My presentation on the results from the American Community Survey is available here. Any opinions expressed are mine and mine alone.) Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and been in charge of Gotham Gazette's demographics topic page since 2000. The opinions expressed are his alone. 

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