Natasha Ishak

Okay, be honest: Did you do the last census? You probably don’t remember and you’re likely not alone. In 2010, when the last census took place, only 61.9 percent of New Yorkers completed the population survey. Sounds trivial, but not for Julie Menin. The recently-appointed NYC census director, dubbed the “census czar,” sees it as money left on the table. Money that could have gone to funding vital programs for the city.

“Public schools, public housing, senior centers, free lunch programs; so many different programs are dependent on this,” Menin said. “Fifty-five different programs that are dependent on census numbers.”

During a phone interview with Bushwick Daily, Menin explained that close to 8 trillion (yes, that’s with a “t”) dollars of federal funding over the next decade will be allocated to cities and states based on the census count. If the federal government receives an inaccurate population count for a city or state, it would negatively affect how many funds are appropriated to that city or state. That is why getting residents to complete the census is extremely important. According to a written testimony from the Citizens Union of the City of New York, every New Yorker receives approximately $2,600 per year in census-related federal funds.

Both North and South Bushwick had a participation rate of roughly 55 percent in the 2010 census, while Ridgewood recorded 50.7 percent. East Williamsburg had the highest participation out of the BRE neighborhoods with a 63.4 percent participation rate. All low numbers, considering that the national average participation rate was 76 percent.

Menin attributes the low participation levels among New Yorkers to bad messaging on the government’s part. As former chair of Manhattan Community Board 1, Menin said that nobody from the government reached out to the board or any other community bodies to explain the necessity of the census.

“The only person who came by was someone from the federal government who said ‘it’s your civic duty to fill [the census form] out’…. Well that is not resonating, and that is not motivating people to take the five minutes it takes to fill the form out,” Menin said. “So we’re completely changing that model.”

There are a couple of new things about the 2020 census. For the first time ever, the city will be launching an outreach plan for the New York City census. The campaign will focus on public education and messaging about the importance of participating in the survey. Outreach efforts will include pop-up centers, micro-targeted ads in multiple languages and ethnic media, and a digital campaign on social media. The city has already started holding public hearings and working with experts and advocates to improve New York’s census participation.

Next year, Menin’s office will start disseminating grants to trusted community organizations to help turn out residents for the census, though the office is still waiting on confirmation of funds from the city. Another new thing about the upcoming census is that New Yorkers will be able to fill out the survey online for the first time.

Attention on the 2020 census has been particularly heavy because of the federal government’s efforts to add a citizenship question in the survey for the first time in 70 years. The decision, which city and state officials have lambasted as an attempt to intimidate vulnerable immigrant communities from participating in the census, has been denied twice in federal court. Now, the federal administration has submitted an expedited appeal over the census question and is awaiting a hearing by the Supreme Court in April.

“This is an attempt to suppress response rates from our immigrant communities. And it’s an attempt to then take funding away from cities and move it to red states across the country,” Menin, whose mother moved to New York as a holocaust survivor, stated. “So we know what [the citizenship question] is about and that’s why we are not going to take it, and we are going to fight back. That’s why we’re going to organize citywide on this.”

In the scenario that the citizenship question does go through to the census, Menin said that the confidentiality of the survey taker’s information is 100 percent protected by constitutional law, regardless. Even without the citizenship question, survey response rates are already low in immigrant neighborhoods and communities of color.

According to a report by Bklyner, the 2010 census data shows areas like Williamsburg, Canarsie and Stuyvesant Heights, which have an average of 42 percent foreign-born residents, represent the least responsive communities in the nation with less than 48 percent participation rate. An evaluation later showed that suspicion of the government was one of the main reasons residents did not participate in the census. So, what response rate does the city hope to reach in the census next year? Menin refused to throw out a number and said that setting a goal rate would “not be productive to do.”

“We’re just really focused on getting every New Yorker counted,” she said.

Cover photo courtesy of Travis American.

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