Mayor Bill de Blasio established the NYC Census 2020 initiative in January of last year to promote a greater response from city residents. There was only a participation rate of 61.9 percent for the 2010 census in 2010, a number significantly below the national average of 74 percent.
“That’s a failing grade,” said David Aronov, a lead organizer for census efforts in Queens during a presentation at a Community Board 6 meeting earlier this month.
“If your child brought home a 62 percent, you wouldn’t be happy with that,” he continued, “If your road was only 62 percent complete, you wouldn’t be happy with that. And if your bus only went 62 percent of the way, you would not be happy with that.”
Both Forest Hills and Rego Park scored better than the city average at 67.3 percent each, but neighborhoods like South Ozone Park and Richmond Hill saw some of the lowest response in the city, with rates falling below 50 percent.
At the mayor’s town hall last Wednesday, Acting Borough President Sharon Lee urged residents to fill out census surveys and encourage others to do the same.
“An undercount is something we just simply cannot afford,” Lee warned.
Census data is used to distribute upwards of $650 billion in federal funding across the country, and Lee explained that each person not counted costs the state up to $3,000 per year.
According to the latest numbers from NYC OpenData, the population of Queens is more than 2.3 million. That means for every 1 percent of the borough population that goes uncounted the state forfeits $69 million in funds that could go toward projects like public housing, roads, schools and hospitals.
Population counts from the census also determine each state’s representation in Congress. In 2010, an undercount for New York led to a loss of two congressional seats, and the state is at risk of losing two more if the same occurs this time around.
On March 12, residents will receive a postcard from the U.S. Census Bureau that includes an individualized code that can be used to participate in this year’s census online. This will initiate the first round of response collection, before a physical form is sent out three weeks later.
This is the first time in census history that Americans will be able to fill out surveys via the Internet and over the phone, in addition to the traditional mail option.
Aronov explained that all public libraries and YMCA’s will be set up as pop-up locations where residents can complete the census if they do not have access to a computer.
Through the NYC Census 2020 office, the city is taking a four-fold approach to combating low response rates. The newly formed NYC Complete Count Fund gave $19 million to 157 nonprofits citywide for the purpose of census outreach, while another $8 million went toward a localized, multilingual media campaign.
In addition to involving all city agencies and institutions in promoting census participation, another component of the city’s efforts is an on-the-ground field team, which established nearly 250 Neighborhood Organizing Census Committees (NOCs).
Residents can sign up to be census ambassadors to their communities, spreading the word through information sessions, pre-census canvassing, peer-to-peer texting and phone bankings.
Taking into account that New York City is a place where more than 200 languages are spoken by a residency that is nearly 40 percent foreign-born, achieving a complete response rate for the city comes with inherent challenges.
The president’s failed attempt to include a question regarding citizenship to the survey and the fear surrounding that pursuit also presents an obstacle for the city.
This is especially pertinent considering the government’s historic use of the census to discriminate against particular ethnic groups: from the Three-Fifths Compromise in slave times to racial ancestry verification during the Jim Crow era to the location of Japanese-Americans for internment camps in WWII.
However, in his presentation, Aronov reassured that the citizenship question will not appear on the 2020 census form.
Furthermore, a federal privacy law that states the U.S. Census Bureau cannot share your information with any other government agency means there is nothing to fear.
“It’s easy to think of the census in this way,” he said, “10 questions, that will take under 10 minutes and determine the next 10 years of your community.”