Making sure every New Yorker counts


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The 2020 census will go digital for the first time. What the Manhattan Borough President learned in Providence, RI, site of the Census Bureau’s test run


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  • Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer (right) with Council Member Carlina Rivera. Photo: Greg Lewis, Manhattan Borough President’s Office




  • Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer (standing, center) speaks at a census meeting in Providence. Photo: Greg Lewis, Manhattan Borough President’s Office




2020 will be a pivotal year in determining federal funding and representation for a decade. And no, I’m not referring to the presidential election (though that’s critical, too) — I’m talking about the 2020 census.

Every decade, the U.S. Census Bureau must get a headcount of everyone living in the United States — citizens, legal residents, long-term visitors, and the undocumented. The results affect states’ and cities’ representation in Congress as well as state and local political boundaries — and they also directly affect how much federal funding communities receive for everything from schools to transportation infrastructure. The stakes are high, and there’s more reason than ever to start preparing in advance.

That’s why I led a New York delegation last week to Providence, Rhode Island, where the U.S. Census Bureau conducted its 2018 census test. Joining me were Council Member Carlina Rivera, reps from elected officials and city and state agencies, community boards, unions, nonprofits, NYCHA tenants and more. Our goal was to hear directly from officials and community groups in Providence, and the Census Bureau itself, about their experiences with the census test. Although we learned a lot, we also realized just how much work we need to do.

The census is required by the Constitution itself, so we’ve done it for centuries — but it’s clear that this one will be different. For starters, the Census Bureau is rolling out its first-ever online survey, hoping that going digital can save money and increase efficiency. Concerns have been raised about whether the online survey can be used on a national scale, and also about whether it heightens the risk of hacking, data theft and fraud.

The bureau plans to invite 80 percent of households to respond to the census online. In the Providence test run, the total response rate for both online and offline surveys was 52.3 percent and, of those who responded on their own, about 61 percent did so online, almost double the number who responded by mail. More than 700 census takers visited households that did not respond after initial outreach.

The bureau told us the test showed they could automate hiring and training, reduce census takers’ workloads by getting many residents to respond online, optimize assignments and routes, and capture interview data safely and securely. However, the dry run in Providence had a narrow goal: to test processes and systems, not to get a complete count. So the Bureau did not focus much on messaging or community partnerships — and even after our trip, it’s still unclear how households will respond in 2020 and how the new online survey will hold up when it’s used on a nationwide scale.

There are also widespread worries about a new “citizenship question” the Trump administration wants to add to the census. Given the White House’s open (and outrageous) attacks on immigrants, there’s good reason to be concerned the addition of the question will raise fears that the data could be misused to target non-citizens for deportation or revocation of their immigration status — and that as a result, non-citizens and their families might avoid being counted. The New York Attorney General’s office and others across the country have filed lawsuits seeking to block the question from being added, but the suits are still in court. The citizenship question was not included on the Providence dry run, so we don’t know for sure how much it would affect response rates.

What’s more, funding for the 2020 census effort has markedly decreased; Congress has given the Bureau $200 million less through fiscal year 2017. According to news reports, there will also be fewer enumerators knocking on doors to remind people to complete the survey. And despite the fact that the Census Bureau will be making a huge change with the introduction of an online form, they elected to test the system in just one location — Providence — instead of testing in multiple locations, which is what they did in previous decades. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau has gone more than a year without an official director. Add all of these challenges together and you come up with the scary potential of undercounts, especially in large cities with diverse populations like ours.

While the full results of the Providence census test won’t be released until early next year, there are steps we know we need to take to get ready for 2020.

One thing is clear: we can’t rely entirely on the federal government to do the outreach necessary to maximize census responses. New York City is fortunate to have interested state and local governments, a wealth of active community organizations, philanthropic foundations, cultural institutions, major employers, and more. That gives us an opportunity here in New York City to be a model for municipalities around the country.

What can you do? Join the New York Complete Count Committee, or reach out to your local Community Board. Encourage organizations you’re a part of — from your job to your house of worship or your block association — to start thinking about how they will get involved when 2020 comes along. Contact your state and local officials and encourage them to dedicate funding to census outreach efforts. We have less than two years — let’s make the most of them and make sure every New Yorker counts.





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