Grants program looks to increase NYC’s census response rate

Stephon Johnson | 10/24/2019, 1:49 p.m.
City Hall wants New Yorkers to understand the importance of the 2020 census.
2020 Census NNPA/NAACP photo

City Hall wants New Yorkers to understand the importance of the 2020 census. A new initiative by the Bill de Blasio administration hopes to accomplish that.

With the 2020 census on the horizon, the city government wants New Yorkers to chime in on what’s the invisible foundation of the United States’ economy and political system. They want as many New Yorkers to respond to the census as possible and will devote money to the cause.

De Blasio, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and The City University of New York have collaborated on a $19 million investment in local community-based organizations as part of their education and mobilization efforts around the census. The $19 million is the largest component of a $40 million investment in the census process. It’s the largest investment of any city nationwide.

“We partnered with CUNY to ensure the success of the city’s efforts,” Amit Bagga, NYC census 2020 deputy director, told the AmNews. “If you think about CUNY’s student body population, by and large they represent historically underrepresented communities. We want to make sure people fill out the census so they can get the resources that are rightfully ours.”

The census determines New York City’s share of the $650 billion-plus in federal funds, which is then used to fund public schools, NYCHA, roads and bridges, and other public entities. The census also determines the number of seats each state gets in Congress and the Electoral College. New York State is currently slated to lose two seats in Congress.

“Direct contact with New York City residents is important because everybody counts,” said Kathleen Daniel, field director with NYC census 2020, to the AmNews. She wants to make sure all historically undercounted residents are educated on the census. “It is important that each one is reaching one and each one teaches one literally that the census is important,” she said.

“We are gearing up to oversee the more than 150 community-based organizations that will be at the front lines of the census effort. We are also creating a CUNY census Corps, a team of 200 students who will fan out throughout the city,” stated CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez. “Finally, members of our faculty who are among the nation’s leading demographers and experts in the census will continue to contribute their research and expertise to help guide the effort, not only in New York but nationwide.”

One thing that the initiative wants to increase is self-response rates for the 2020 census. According to city officials, the average U.S. self-response rate for the 2010 census was 76%. In New York City, it was 61.9%. The lowest self-response rate among the five boroughs was in Brooklyn where only 55.5% of residents responded to the census on their own.

“It’s important that our elected leaders and CUNY are investing resources into ensuring that every New Yorker is counted in the upcoming census,” stated State Senator Jessica Ramos. “Our communities’ resources and representation crucially depend on it. I urge New Yorkers to join us in filling out the census form, volunteering to help our neighbors participate, and applying for local jobs on the census website in order to ensure a full count.”

When broken down by sociodemographic neighborhood clusters, the lowest response rates could be found among Black New Yorkers (52.6%), foreign-born Black New Yorkers (51.4%) and Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers (48.2%). Brooklyn also has the highest percentage of historically undercounted populations at 35%, which includes the aforementioned groups along with foreign-born Asians and foreign-born Hispanics.

The city plans to dole out money to community organizations in those neighborhoods who will in turn help get the word out about the census.

“Let me give you an example, let’s say at a public housing building or any building,” said Daniel. “You know who your tenant association president is and with us working with validators, if that person comes to your door, you’re more likely to listen and trust the information that they provide you.”

The city’s 2020 census effort includes texting, phone banking and informing people via teach-ins about how the census works, why it’s important and what’s at stake. Daniel noted that since the 2010 census, Washington Heights had three new schools built with the majority of those students being Dominican. On the 2010 census, Washington Heights had a response rate of 77% while Central Harlem had less than 50%. She said that the election of Adriano Espaillat to Congress could be directly tied to the high response rate to the census in Washington Heights.

But another roadblock is President Donald Trump’s administration. With its failed attempts to include a citizenship question to try and weed out undocumented Americans, many residents in underrepresented neighborhoods might be hesitant to fill out a form that’s sent to the federal government. The city’s 2020 census effort wants to quash those fears.

“Census information is protected by stringent privacy laws on the books,” said Bagga to the AmNews. “Title 13 is the U.S. code that makes it a serious crime for anybody at the Census Bureau to share any piece of information with anyone else...immigration, law enforcement and others. The fine is $200,000 and imprisonment for up to five years.”

Bagga explained that during World War II, census data was used to round up Japanese Americans and put them in internment campus. After the war, Congress passed laws to ensure that census information would be kept private because of it.

With the current administration putting fear into certain segments of the country, Daniel wants to make sure New Yorkers are knowledgeable about what the census could do for them and their neighborhood. She said she’s already won over one person.

“I talked to a Lyft driver the other day who was born and raised in Southern Brooklyn and never understood that this was important,” Daniel said. “He now wants to volunteer.”

The city hopes to recruit 2,500 residents to go to neighborhoods and get the word out about the census. New Yorkers can go to www.nyc.gov/census, scroll to the bottom, click on your neighborhood on the map to see how it did on the 2010 census and sign up to volunteer.

“If you’re not counted, you don’t exist,” said Bagga.