The 2020 Census is coming, and this time, New York state and local governments are working hand-in-hand to make sure the strength of its mighty populace is both seen and heard!

In the 2010 census, New York City’s response rate was less than 62 percent, compared to the national average of 76 percent, and according to a January Census report, the city’s response rate may be even lower — 58 percent — in 2020 because of a variety of factors, including a distrust of government as well as concerns about data privacy and confidentiality.

“Any undercount would cause our constituents, communities of color, immigrant communities and the disenfranchised, to lose their fair share of nearly $800 billion annually for the next ten years,” said State Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright, who represents Central and East Brooklyn. “It would also ensure that these communities would be politically underrepresented in federal, state and local government.”

To decrease the chances of an undercount, Mayor de Blasio, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and The City University of New York have announced a $19 million investment to partner with community-based organizations citywide in their census mobilization efforts- money that will go to non-profits that demonstrate an ability to reach the hardest-to-count residents.

United Neighborhood Houses New York, a 100-year-old policy and social change organization representing 42 neighborhood settlement houses, is one of the organizations chosen to lead that charge.

The Census figures how many seats we get in Washington, and so with an undercount we lose congressional representation,” said Nora Moran, Director of Policy & Advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses.

In fact, another undercount would risk a loss not only of federal funds but also the loss of as many as two seats in Congress.

“NYC also uses Census data to determine how resources are shared across neighborhoods, as far as infrastructure and streets. Other things that are impacted include funding that the state gets for its safety net programs such as SNAP, medicare and energy efficient credit programs,” she added.

As a network that reaches 765,000 New Yorkers annually, UNH plans to leverage its partnership and resources to take an old-school organizing approach by working with community’s trusted messengers, such as senior centers, churches and pre-schools, to serve as ambassadors of the Census. 

Another contributing concern raised earlier this year around Census participation was the possible inclusion of a citizenship question. In March 2018, Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, requested a citizenship question be included after the Justice Department told him it needed citizenship data to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The proposed citizenship question threatened to pose yet another barrier to getting people to fill out the Census, because it was unclear how that information would be used, said Moran: “There are all of these policy decisions coming out of Washington that tells immigrants that it’s dangerous to engage with the government in any way, and that question scared people from wanting to fill out the Census.”

“To add a citizenship question would further disenfranchise [Brooklyn] residents — 40 percent of whom are foreign-born — and their families from being counted, and therefore receiving the resources and representation they deserve,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

In late spring, a coalition of 17 states led by New York filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration for adding the question. And in July, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled to temporarily delay the administration from adding the question about citizenship status to the 2020 Census.

Also, noted Moran, since the next Census will be online, concerns were raised about Census participation by those residents with limited broadband access or who are not digital savvy, such as the elderly. To address this, UNH is developing educational resources and identifying strategic outreach centers to accommodate residents challenged with access to technology.

“So it’s important for us to make sure there are computer labs, that these places are publicized and that they are comfortable filling it out,” said Moran. “We are working to insure there are no barriers. In the meantime, I’m just grateful folks are looking at this issue.”

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