At the beginning of September, New York City’s 2020 Census response rate was at 57.9%, several percentage points shy of the nation’s average of 65%. Local leaders and elected officials are warning New Yorkers that it’s their last chance to be counted for the next 10 years in the Census as the Sept. 30 deadline is just under two weeks away.
This week, officials from the U.S. Census Bureau reported that over 92% of housing units have been accounted for in the 2020 Census with 26.6% counted by census takers and other field data collection operations and 65.9% of housing units responding online, by phone or by mail.
In August, President Donald Trump moved to end Census collection from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30. Results from the Census will be delivered to Trump in December rather than next spring. Trump planned to exclude undocumented immigrants from the population that determine states’ seats in the House of Representatives, however, a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York blocked that plan this week. The new deadline also heightens the risk of an undercount of the Black community. Civil rights groups, including the National Urban League (NUL), civic organizations and local governments filed a legal challenge in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to block the Trump administration’s plan forcing the Census Bureau to shorten the 2020 Census count. “We’re not going to allow the American people to be cheated out of a fair and accurate census count because politics has infected the process,” NUL President and CEO Marc Morial said. “The Trump administration has openly worked to drive down minority participation in the Census to give less representation to more diverse states, and now is rushing the deadline so that the data can be manipulated to exclude immigrants, in defiance of the Constitution, before legislative districts are drawn.” New York City officials say the new deadline means crunch time and getting people to fill out the Census is a priority.
While people are being encouraged to fill the Census out on their own, enumerators have been scouring the city to get an accurate count. On Wednesday, Sept. 16, City officials, elected officials, and community advocates and leaders gathered in Manhattan, The Bronx and Brooklyn for the “Countdown to the Future” Kick-Off to mobilize New Yorkers to obtain a complete Census count. In a recent interview with the AmNews, NYC Census 2020 director Julie Menin said that neighborhoods could lose out on billions if there’s an undercount. “Right now we need every New Yorker who has not filled the Census out to go online to my2020census.gov and immediately fill it out,” Menin told the AmNews. “For every New Yorker that has filled it out, we need them now to go into their networks to neighborhoods, to colleagues, to friends to make sure they fill the Census out.”
Menin added that NYC Census 2020 has phone banked over 3 million New Yorkers, and sent text messages, has media campaigns in 26 languages, TV ads, digital ads, radio ads and print ads. Local Census officials have been at high traffic areas like subway stations. Earlier this year, several leaders in New York’s Black community joined the effort to get a large Black turnout for the Census. The team warned Black citizens about the dangers of an undercount and the devastating effects. The COVID-19 pandemic added even more roadblocks for goals of getting an accurate count.
Interim director for Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, Lurie Daniel Favors, Esq. is on the team and said with the shortened counting period, participating in the Census is more crucial than ever. She said skepticism of the federal government and fears of information being released have plagued Black and immigrant communities for years when it comes to the Census. The federal government has stiff penalties if Census information is released. With pending lawsuits and a possible extension in play, Favors said everyone should be filling out the Census now. “While we are on track to beat some of our worst numbers from 2010, we are certainly nowhere close to where we need to be in order to have a full count,” Favors told the AmNews. “We were completely stymied by COVID. We planned for everything we could think [but] no one thought about planning for a worldwide pandemic. This is a moving target but what we do know is we need communities of African descent in the City and State of New York to fill out that Census. We have so many things that are stacked against us in terms of recovery from the pandemic.”
Brooklyn has had the lowest response rate out of all five boroughs in New York City when it comes to the Census. Numbers have been especially low in Brooklyn’s 37th City Council District, which contains the Bushwick and East New York neighborhoods. The district currently does have a council member since Councilman Rafael Espinal left office in January to take another job. NAACP New York State Conference President Hazel Dukes said grants were given to local NAACP branches to help with Census efforts. The civil rights organization placed 14,000 robocalls to residents in zip codes they were assigned to. “We understand what this count means to us after being hit so hard,” Dukes told the AmNews. “We need every penny that we can get that we’re entitled to. We’re still pushing. We have people knocking on doors who are not enumerators but people in buildings who are reminding their residents to be counted. Our life depends on it.”
Other than a financial impact, a Census undercount could hurt the city and state politically. Experts say New York State could lose one or two seats in the House of Representatives. Medgar Evers College political science professor Dr. John Flateau said an undercount would impact the number of political representation down to the City Council. “These numbers will reduce the number of State Senate, State Assembly and City Council seats in our neighborhoods,” he said. “Central Brooklyn has the lowest Census response in the city. We will lose representation if we are not counted. We will not have a voice at the table in City Hall or Washington if we don’t get a 100% count from our residents in our community.” State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins agrees. When it comes to self-response of the Census, New York State ranks 33rd with Nassau County in Long Island having the highest response rate at 73%. The state’s federal funding is determined by numbers from the U.S. Census. “There has been a long history of undercounting the Black community and we have seen Trump’s effort to undercount communities of color,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement to the AmNews. “This is why the Senate Majority has been actively pushing for the full Census count within communities of color because every person must be counted to ensure that the services and resources provided to our communities truly reflect their needs.” For the first time, the U.S. Census can be completed online and by phone along with being done in paper form. However, Census participation rate numbers reveal a digital divide due to a lack of or limited internet access. The Census Bureau reported earlier this month that the digital divide is a factor in properly counting “hard-to-reach” populations. One out of every six households in the city has does not have internet access. Officials are reminding citizens that they can fill out the Census online on their mobile device over a cell phone network. “You now have a huge digitalization problem and they are using that in counting the Census,” former New York Gov. David Paterson told the AmNews. “Sometimes, not all the people can respond. It’s extremely important that everyone fill out the Census and count every single person. It measures the size of different communities, which measures how much aid they get from the government.”
However, some people in the same Black community which is being targeted for the extra focus, is also saying that the approach by white census takers simply reinforces the distrust. “Over the last few weeks there have been several mostly young white men with those clipboards, going to homes, knocking on doors or setting up tables on the sidewalk, demanding that people fill out the Census immediately,” Paul, an MTA worker from Bed Stuy told the AmNews. “They have come to my house twice––I filled out the form online months ago. Like with me, I have seen them argue with people. It gives the wrong impression.”
And another issue, amidst online classes and on-campus coronavirus precautions, college students have newfound stressors to focus on this fall semester. The Census could fairly be among the last of their concerns, but with the September 30, 2020 Census deadline approaching soon, these young adults considered the decennial effort and shared their varied feelings on the matter.
For 18-year-old Kevwe Okumakube, the Census never felt important. The Queens native said that she was unsure of its purpose “other than to provide demographic data.” Okumakube commented on her individual lack of knowledge, but 20-year-old Cindy Edward attributed her generation’s ignorance to a lack of dissemination. “I know that it’s important but I honestly never felt compelled to do it,” Edward said. “I feel like it’s not talked about enough or it’s something not everyone knows about. Everyone knows to vote but not everyone knows about the Census or cares about the Census.”
As a Black woman, Edward added that she knows the Census affects her community most and recognizes that more people of color should contribute to the count. Twenty-year-old Saira Coye-Huhn took this a step further, she believes that Census participation for people of color is urgent and non-negotiable. “It’s essential for minority groups to be able to trust the 2020 Census and feel comfortable about being able to answer it,” Coye-Huhn said. “There’s too much warranted skepticism when it comes to filling out the Census.”
This aforementioned skepticism refers to individuals who omit or falsify information on the Census out of fear for discrimination that could follow, an act that she says she has on multiple occasions. Coye-Huhn is an Indigenous woman, and for her community Census participation is worth much more than simply being counted.
“If an Indigenous Nation’s population declines to a certain point then they can lose rights to their lands and resources,” Coye-Huhn said. “Bigger corporations and administrations depend on the decline of our populations as an excuse to deplete us of our resources. If not enough Indigenous people fill out the Census there is no way that our numbers can be seen and for our leaders to see a necessity in providing for our needs.”
A similar point of interest is the chance to afford communities of color with national attention and the power to affect political change.
“People of color, specifically Black people, are undercounted in the Census which puts us at great disadvantage,” said 19-year-old Alexis Nwatu. “It denies us a full voice in policy decision-making which could greatly impact our communities in the long run.”
Representation through participation is a ubiquitous goal for these Gen Z young adults. Coming from notoriously disenfranchised racial groups, many feel that they aren’t always given a space to have their voices heard, the Census is a rare chance to do so. “The 2020 Census is super important,” said 19-year-old Emely Pena. “We need to have an accurate representation of our communities, which is something the Census allows for.”
With the November primary election closely following a resurgence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement in mainstream media, the 2020 Census feels like the most crucial count to date.
“The America we know today is far more Black and Brown than most realize and it’s essential that the white and privileged Americans recognize that.” Coye-Huhn said. “They need to know that there will be repercussions in future elections if they continue to ignore our voices and needs.”