When the Federal Government Forgets How to Count
by Councilman Leroy Comrie
Apr 05, 2011 | 7309 views | 0 0 comments | 178 178 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Every ten years the U.S. Census is supposed to offer Americans a unique opportunity to learn more about our communities. But in the latest count, it came as a surprise that we are the ones who have to teach the Federal Government about who New Yorkers are.

According to the Census data released last week, New York City has only grown 2.1 percent in the past ten years. The idea that our city, universally recognized as the "capital of the world", barely grew in the past decade is absurd. Even more ridiculous is the notion that Queens, the nation’s fourth largest and most diverse county, only grew by 1,343 people, or a measly 0.1 percent.

The U.S. Census, despite only being updated every ten years, is the primary determining factor in what accounts for billions of dollars in federal aid each year. Our city relies on this funding to help improve our schools, build and maintain affordable housing, provide food stamps for needy families, and operate hospitals.

So what went wrong with the Census that resulted in a severe undercount of our borough's population? When looking at all the obstacles to getting a full count, it comes as no surprise to see how the cards were stacked against Queens from the beginning.

The Census is conducted first through a mail-in questionnaire. After questionnaires are returned, the Census sends out surveyors to those addresses that a questionnaire was not returned from to elicit answers. In Queens alone, there are more than 140 languages spoken, all of which are used as the primary language for some residents. For some families not proficient in English, even if they wanted to answer the questionnaire, they wouldn’t be able to.

Imagine the problem confronting an immigrant family when a stranger knocks on the door, identifies him/herself as an employee of the Federal government and begins asking for personal information while promising to only use it for “statistical purposes only.”

With the reported reckless behavior of Immigration agents in pursuing aliens and the recent illegal deportation of an American citizen, it should come as no surprise that many immigrants do not want to give information in fear of prosecution because of their immigration status or the irregular, overcrowded and often illegal housing conditions they occupy.

Queens has been the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis in New York City, and with the pressing need for additional income by many distressed homeowners, some dwellings have been illegally sub-divided, allowing for basement dwellings and more units than permitted.

No landlord or resident will ever truthfully answer a questionnaire arriving on their doorstep asking how many people are inside the household, let alone return it all.

What we and other large urban areas have learned from this Census and ones before is that there must be a complete overhaul and review of how the Federal government counts it’s largest cities. We need to begin to have an honest, realistic dialogue with Congressional leaders from both parties on why a simple head count cannot be the means to accurately assess the demographics of our communities.

In addition, we must demand that the Census Bureau take an initiative to not use a one-size fits all model of counting people. The Census strategy that is employed in a rural area of Nebraska simply cannot be the same model that is used in Elmhurst, Queens.

The future of our children’s education, our health system and our infrastructure demands that we expect better from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Leroy Comrie is chairman of the City Council’s Queens delegation.

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