David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

By law, the United States government is responsible for conducting a census every 10 years to count all of the nation’s residents. But all evidence in the run up to the 2020 census points to the likelihood of a severe undercount that will have devastating impacts on blacks, Latinx individuals, immigrants and the poor.

This is nothing new, but the fact it is still going on is disturbing. In the 1980s, as an advisor to then Mayor Ed Koch, I led an effort to fight the census undercount in court, resulting in corrective action by the Census Bureau that saved two congressional seats for New York City. City officials and advocates for the poor have since fought similar undercounting in the 1990, 2000 and 2010 censuses.

In 2020 there is more at stake. The Census Bureau intends to add to the 2020 census a question about whether the respondent is a United States citizen, a question many fear will further suppress immigrant participation. The citizenship question represents the Trump Administration’s most overt, cynical attempt to suppress the count in urban areas. It is also an attempt to gain a Republican electoral advantage by subduing immigrant census responses while playing into the fears of whites who think that they will inevitably lose their numerical advantage in this country.

The stakes are high: the census count determines representation in the House of Representatives, how state and congressional districts are drawn (and therefore the Electoral College) and goes to other uses that are vital to local communities and businesses. More importantly, the census affects how the federal government divides an estimated $800 billion each year for such things as public housing, highway construction, Head Start, Medicaid and Medicare – all programs President Trump wants to slash.

In New York City, the Urban Institute estimates that the 2020 undercount could reach 361,000. This undercount is bolstered by an atmosphere of fear among legal immigrants that participating in the count could make them and their families targets for Immigration and Customs Enforcement action. If projections are correct, 2020 could be the worst census undercount in New York City history after 1990, when the census left out an astonishing 244,000 people (the equivalent of 3 percent of the population).

A large undercount would shortchange New York City and cripple its capacity to provide housing, to maintain its infrastructure and to provide education and health services (especially for children). The undercount of children, for instance, would reduce the city’s Title I funding — meaning fewer federal dollars for programs to improve schools in high-poverty districts, and for children with disabilities.

The entire census controversy boils down to a simple question: who gets counted? In arguably the highest-profile case of this Supreme Court term, the court will decide whether the Trump Administration complied with the law and U.S. Constitutional requirements when attempting to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. By the bureau’s own nonpartisan analysis, adding a citizenship question to the “short form” that will go to every household in America in 2020 could result in an undercount of 6.5 million people — close to the entire population of Indiana or Tennessee.

As it stands, New York State could lose one congressional seat after the 2020 census because growth in the state has not kept pace with that of the nation. The potential loss of a second seat could come down to as few as 50,000 people, which an accurate count in the city — the only part of the state that has seen substantial population growth — may avert.

The Census Bureau must not only count people, it must put them in the right place — their homes, whether that be a single-family home, an apartment building or a senior health care facility. It’s especially challenging given that New York City has more than 3.6 million addresses. Apartment-dwellers are more likely to both receive federal aid and have children. The Census Bureau’s own analysis found that it undercounted young children by 4.6 percent in the 2010 census while missing 1.1 percent of renters (a category sometimes used as a proxy for low-income residents). And people need to feel comfortable answering census enumerators’ questions, which is why the Bureau must do all it can to hire individuals of diverse backgrounds and not make the same mistake it did in 2010, when its hiring practices landed the Bureau in federal court for Title VII violations, a lawsuit my office helped pursue.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, state governments, foundations and non-profit advocates like the Community Service Society will need to work together on an unprecedented, coordinated grass-roots campaigns to convince immigrants, the poor and people of color to complete their census forms.

This is shaping up to be the most intensive, high-profile public service campaign New York City has ever seen. And with so much at stake, it deserves nothing less.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.