2020 vision

Counting on Old Uptown Playbook for Citywide Census Success

Youth organizers post information about the 2020 Census at the 168th Street station in Washington Heights on Aug. 15, 2019.
Youth organizers post information about the 2020 Census at the 168th Street station in Washington Heights on Aug. 15, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The last time America took stock of itself, Washington Heights and Inwood beat the odds.

On paper, the adjoining neighborhoods were deemed “hard to count” by federal Census officials. With high numbers of low-income people, households with a single parent and residents who don’t speak English, it appeared probable the area would have a subpar mail-in response rate.

But when the 2010 numbers rolled in, the area boasted the best response rate in the city. The 2000 numbers weren’t too shabby, either — higher than the New York City average by nine percentage points.

A decade later, the city is facing another census — and several factors could make counting more difficult.

The Trump administration’s anti-immigration push has made the census politically fraught. The Census Bureau’s budget has been slashed. And for the first time, forms will be completed mostly online, instead of by mail.

The effects of an undercount could be far-reaching in New York. Fewer people counted would mean less federal funding for services — like food stamps, public housing, education, healthcare and transportation — and could cost the city and the state seats in Congress and less overall representation in government.

Amid the new challenges, Census officials and experts told THE CITY the preventative medicine for an undercount is to replicate the 2010 Uptown formula citywide.

Julie Menin, director of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s census outreach effort, said she cites Washington Heights and Inwood “as a model in every forum that I do.”

“That’s exactly the kind of neighborhood activism that we would like to see in neighborhoods across the city,” she told THE CITY.

‘We Must be Visible’

The past successful counts in Washington Heights and Inwood were no accident, according to Eddie Silverio, the youth services director at Alianza Dominicana and Catholic Charities, who has been working on censuses since 1990.

For the 2010 census, he joined a small army of federal Census workers and concerned citizens to blanket the area with one message: Fill out your census.

“We have the bodegas. We have the salons. We have the after-schools. We have the hospitals,” he said. “Everywhere you went during the week, someone was putting the census in front of you.”

2020 Census information is posted around Washington Heights.
2020 Census information is posted around Washington Heights. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The idea of the census hit home in Upper Manhattan’s heavily Dominican-American community.

“There’s a saying that Dominicans like to talk about two things: politics and baseball,” said Angela Fernandez, commissioner for the state Division of Human Rights and a former executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

“So I think that when a civic engagement apparatus, something like the Census count, deploys itself in a community, they’re right there ready.”

“The messaging was we must visit be visible, we must be active, we must be seen, we must be counted,” said Aldrin Rafael Bonilla, a deputy borough president heading Manhattan’s count committee.

“Something about seeing your numbers reflected more accurately — in terms of the fabric of the United States, the role that you have in it — makes people feel proud,” added Bonilla, who led Uptown’s count as a Census official in 2000 and as a volunteer census committee leader in 2010.

Immigrants’ Rising Fear of Feds

Still, the strength of replies from the Latino community in past censuses will be challenged in 2020.

More than a quarter of the people living in the 72nd Assembly District, which covers portions of Inwood and Washington Heights, aren’t U.S. citizens, according to THE CITY’s analysis of data collected by The Texas Tribune.

Those areas were already considered hard to count — but now there is added confusion and fear brought on by the Trump administration’s barrage of anti-immigrant policies, said Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Local organizations working on immigration rights issues have been communicating to the local residents that if government officials comes to your door, don’t open the door. Or if the government tries asking for information, be very skeptical,” he said. “That’s an understandable response. But now, the message has to be just the opposite.”

Census officials adamantly state that identifying information submitted to the bureau is safe and cannot be released under federal law.

Every Census worker is sworn to a lifetime oath of confidentiality that, if broken, could result in a $250,000 fine or five years in prison, according to Jeff Behler, the Census regional director for New York.

“We take it seriously,” he said. “The public’s trust is the foundation of all the data collection that we do.”

‘You Gotta Push the Message’

But building that trust in immigrant neighborhoods is “tougher than ever,” said Bonilla, the deputy borough president.

“I cannot lie to you. Myself and a group of other folks who are working on this desperately in terms of — how we can legitimately, in good conscious, make the case for census participation?” he said.

In the past, Bonilla screened 25,000 people to fill 600 census jobs. In certain cases, he was able to hire non-citizens, he said. This time, it’s unclear whether that will be allowed.

Behler says that policy is still being worked out.

On top of face-to-face trust issues, roughly 27% of households in the area don’t have broadband internet access, according to a July report from the city comptroller’s office, leaving the area vulnerable to an undercount.

Bonillio said covering the neighborhood, literally, with census-related swag and advertisements is key, including Frisbees, stress-relief balls, T-shirts, pens and local television and radio spots.

Silverio is staying positive — even as some of his peers worry.

“They’re already discounting the community. ‘Oh, they’re not going to do it. Everyone’s afraid,’” he said. “I said, No, you gotta get off that. You gotta push the message. Because we all fear — because of the hate-mongering, all the nonsense — but if we have that attitude, we’re going to be defeated.”

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