There’s no doubt that we’re living in perilous times when the right of every person living in the United States to be counted in our national census is being thwarted. For far too long, Black Americans have endured marginalization and in 1790, the year of the first census, a Black man was counted as 3/5 of a man, simply for political reasons. Now, again for similar reasons, an undercount of Blacks as well as other persons of color is at risk.
The 2020 Census count starts March 12 and ends July 31. President Trump has deliberately sown confusion and underinvested in this year’s census to suppress the count in communities of color, as if mocking us once again with his 2016 infamous question, “What do [we] have to lose?”
Money and power are what our communities stand to lose.
In 2010, the average census response rate nationally was 76%, but New York City’s average was only 62%. Some neighborhoods had response rates as low as 35%. The result? We lost many millions in critical federal funding that couldn’t be replaced.
The U.S. Census Bureau is already predicting that New York City’s response rate will be even lower this year. The Bureau estimates it could drop as low as 58%. What would that mean for us and our neighbors? Millions of dollars in federal funding will flow away from New York City and State. New York City neighborhoods will lose childcare funding, Head Start slots, elder programs, and community centers. There will be less funding for Medicare. Roads will take longer to be repaired. Firehouses and hospitals will be affected. Fewer people will have access to food assistance. And it won’t stop there; other vital programs will be affected.
New York State lost two congressional seats after the 2000 Census, and two more after the 2010 Census. Texas became more powerful when our seats became theirs. We could lose up to two more of our remaining 27 seats this year. That’s two more legislators who won’t be fighting for us.
We must act with urgency and mobilize our communities starting today if New York City has any hope of achieving a high census count this year. We must avert the devastating impact of a low census count on people who traditionally have suffered the most—communities of color, immigrants, and families living in poverty. It’s a matter of economic and political justice.
FPWA, working hand in hand with UJA-Federation of New York, Catholic Charities of New York, the Council of People’s Organization, and the Interfaith Center of New York, created the Interfaith Census 2020 Count Coalition to work with faith leaders across the city to raise awareness about the importance and timing of the census, as well as dispel confusion and address the understandable lack of trust in government that is common in historically undercounted communities. Faith leaders have a unique role to play in the census. They are trusted community leaders and they bring solid reputations as moral guides. They also have the specialized skills and hyperlocal knowledge needed to achieve a high census count.
Our coalition is rolling out our boots-on-the-ground strategy with trainings in all five boroughs. Our website, https://interfaithcensus2020.nyc/, includes commonly asked questions and hands-on tools that anyone can use to mobilize and increase their community’s census participation.
In the next two months, all New Yorkers must go big to make sure that their entire community completes the census if we’re to get the resources we need and deserve.
—Jennifer Jones Austin is the CEO and executive director of FPWA and steering committee member of the Interfaith Census 2020 Count Coalition.