the count

City Reveals $40 Million Plan of Attack on 2020 Census

Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Census Director Julie Menin, back when she was commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, at City Hall on April 24, 2014.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Census Director Julie Menin, back when she was commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, at City Hall on April 24, 2014. Photo: Rob Bennett /The Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

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The city’s three library systems, CUNY, 157 community-based organizations, labor unions, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council are all betting $40 million on the House — in an unprecedented push to get all New Yorkers counted in the 2020 Census.

At stake is everything from federal funds for the city to grocery inventories to perhaps Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ seat in Congress.

It marks the biggest investment of any U.S. city, according to a letter signed by de Blasio, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Julie Menin, the city’s 2020 Census director, among others.

“The majority of these funds will be dedicated specifically to education and outreach efforts,” the letter said. “We are proud to partner with these organizations to bring the census to the doorstep of every single New Yorker and get a complete count.”

An Aggressive Sprint

The effort, announced just under 60 days before the Census’ March 12 launch, will rely on targeted outreach in communities that have historically been undercounted, “aggressive” media outreach and the deployment of new technologies, officials said.

“The federal government is estimating that in cities like New York, that our numbers are going to fall,” Menin told THE CITY. “We have to double down, we have to prove them wrong.

“We’re New Yorkers, and we have to remember that we’re in a nationwide competition,” she added. “So to the extent that New Yorkers do not answer the Census, that means we will — will — lose funding for our local public schools, or public housing, or senior centers, Headstart programs.”

The collaborative effort represents a “huge short-term mobilization,” said Jeffrey Wice, senior fellow at New York Law School and leader of its Census and Redistricting Institute.

“Strategizing a program down to the community block level is unique,” he added. “We haven’t seen anything like this in the country. And I certainly hope it is successful.”

The plan includes a $3 million commitment to community and ethnic media advertising, the first time an investment of this size is being made, Menin said.

“What we’re focused on is making sure that we’re reaching every single community across New York City in a multitude of different ways,” she said.

In addition to TV, digital, and print ads, New Yorkers should expect to see subway and bus ads, public service announcements with celebrities, and social media outreach, she said.

“We certainly understand that in a city as diverse, and as complex, and as broad as New York, we need to do that,” Menin added.

A ‘Backseat’ So Far

Still, some critics say that on a statewide level, New York is running behind in mobilizing for the once-a-decade count.

California, which has twice the population of New York, is planning to spend as much as $150 million on Census outreach. New York State plans to put out $60 million. Of that, a $20 million pool is supposed to be available to localities, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to announce how much will go where.

“New York State has really taken the back seat,” said Wennie Chin, senior manager of civic engagement at the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the city’s community partners.

“If any part of our state has an undercount, then we will suffer,” she added.

The 2020 Census marks the first time it can be done completely online, Oct. 29, 2019.
The 2020 Census marks the first time it can be done completely online, Oct. 29, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

At risk for New York City is close to an estimated $6 billion in federal funding — money for services like Medicaid, public housing, the foster care system and school lunches.

Politicians throughout New York also have vested interest in an accurate count. The lines of their districts could shift following the Census.

Due to population decline, New York is already expected to lose one seat in the House of Representatives, a December estimate of the state’s population from Election Data Services suggested. The political consulting firm previously predicted that two seats would be in jeopardy.

A review last year by THE CITY, building on data and analysis by The Texas Tribune, suggests Ocasio-Cortez’ Queens-and-Bronx district could be particularly vulnerable to undercount. That’s because a little over a quarter of those living there are non-citizens — a higher percentage than any other congressional district in the state.

An undercount could even bring private sector consequences in the retail industry, said Andrew Reamer, research professor at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy.

“If a population is undercounted there may be fewer goods and services out there for them to purchase,” said Reamer, who studies the public and private sectors’ use of Census data.

For example, he noted, “If a neighborhood in Queens undercounts the number of poor people, then a new Target in Queens may not carry products poor people can afford, because Target doesn’t know they are there.”

Participation is Key

Factors from beyond New York could dampen participation in the Census, experts agreed.

President Donald Trump’s foiled bid to include a “citizenship question” on the 2020 Census will still have a chilling effect among immigrant New Yorkers, Census experts predicted.  They said the move could discourage some from participating out of concern over the government targeting immigrants.

“Apprehension affects whether vulnerable populations respond to the Census,” New York City’s Complete Count plan acknowledges. “Overcoming this apprehension requires culturally and linguistically sound messaging around the importance of the census and mitigating the fears felt by communities. Yet, even getting the message out requires overcoming certain barriers.”

Because the Census is being offered as an option online for the first time, one of those barriers is access to the internet. The digital divide is “pervasive,” the city’s plan notes. Nearly 30% of city households across the boroughs lack broadband access, according to a recent report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

That’s a significant hurdle, said Meeta Anand, a Census 2020 senior fellow at the New York Immigration Coalition.

“Even if you decide you want to complete the Census,” she said, “then it’s like, ‘How do I do that?’”

Part of the city’s challenge is letting people without online access know they can complete the survey by phone, or wait for a paper form.

The city’s plan also encourages participation through public libraries, and includes an investment of $1.4 million to help more than 100 branches in historically undercounted locations to deal with translation and other needs. Laptops and tablets will be available for those interested in completing the Census at a library.

“They really came to us and treated it like a partnership,” said Anand of city officials. “To me, the very fact that you have a government agency … leaning in and saying, ‘We really want to be partners and we want to do this together shows they recognize the importance of the effort.’”

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