Another 2020 Disaster: The Census

Aug 19, 2020 |

By Melissa Aase, Ana Aguirre, and Michelle Neugebauer

Executive Directors, University Settlement; United Community Centers; Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation

Next week, United States Census outreach teams will begin knocking on doors across the five boroughs, as we enter the final phase of the 2020 count. They'll attempt to visit every household that hasn't yet responded, which will be a big job: nationwide, only 63% of households have done so, and in some areas of Brooklyn the response rate is under 35%.

As leaders of Settlement Houses working in neighborhoods the Census has historically undercounted, we've had front-row seats to this year's historically troubled count.

The 2020 Census will likely be the least accurate yet. COVID-19, the long-planned yet still bumpy transition to online data collection, the influence of partisan appointees to the Census Bureau, and President Trump's focused efforts to undermine the process have all threatened the accuracy of this year's count.

In a normal year, the process would be complete by now; as mandated by the Constitution, the Census takes place every ten years, typically wrapping up before August.

But since 2020 is about as far from normal as anyone can imagine, a nakedly political fight is still raging over how the Census will conclude – even as COVID-19 kills more than 1000 people across the country every day.

Before March, the process was on track to finish as usual: postcards and questionnaires were printed and mailed, promotional ads purchased, and thousands of enumerators had been recruited to help with the count. When the pandemic hit, lawmakers advocated for extending the deadline, and the Census Bureau announced it would allow responses through October 31st.

But this week, we learned that the Trump administration has capriciously instructed the Census Bureau to finish the field count by the end of September – all but ensuring an undercount across the U.S.

Here in New York, only in the last few weeks have our own census teams been able to conduct the in-person outreach we've been planning since January. And while the successive heat waves in July were unforgiving, the work couldn't be more important – at least two congressional seats in New York State are at stake, not to mention billions of dollars in federal funding for vital services and infrastructure needs.

The administration's unilateral decision to shorten the Census response period at a time when COVID-19 is still surging will particularly harm immigrants, low-income communities of color, and children, the groups that run the biggest risk of being undercounted. In the 2010 Census, an estimated 70,000 children under 5 were missed by the Census in New York City, costing our communities approximately $21 million in lost federal funding that would have supported the schools, food, transit, and housing those children rely on.

The neighborhoods where we operate, including East New York, Jamaica, and the Lower East Side, cannot afford another decade of being undercounted. Already, our community infrastructure does not adequately support the needs of our families. Between the effects of rezoning, COVID 19, and being undercounted, Black and brown families are the ones truly losing, yet again. The very first Census included a constitutional mandate to undercount Black residents, and more than 200 years later our political environment still perpetuates undercounting of communities of color.

Our organizations partner with our neighbors every day to create safe, vibrant and inclusive communities, and we are working hard to get a full count – but we need all the time we can get.

When it is done well, the Census measures growth and migration, illuminating demographic shifts and persistent inequalities in outcomes for marginalized communities. It is an integral part of our democracy – when it's threatened, so is our constitutional order. Our Congressional representatives must take all possible steps to ensure this year's count is complete.


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