Put bluntly, the census is money and power.
The census is used to determine how much of the $675 billion in federal spending a state or locality gets – including funding for hospitals, roads and bridges, public schools, disaster assistance, police, fire and EMS, food assistance (including SNAP and the National School Lunch Program), Section 8 Housing, Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Community Development Block Grants.
But census data also determines political representation in Congress and the number of electoral votes each state is allocated, as well as apportioning districts at the state and local level. Businesses also use census data to make investment, hiring, and re-location decisions.
“This census is about more than just ensuring we finally get our fair share of federal government dollars when we need it most,” Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said at a press conference earlier this month. “This year’s census is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for us to directly combat the inequities this [COVID-19] crisis has laid bare.”
I must admit, considering the political morass that Trump has created – first trying to squeeze in a citizenship question and even now, trying to discount undocumented immigrants from the apportionment, despite clear, unambiguous language in the Constitution mandating a census of all persons residing in the United States, every 10 years.
It’s the kind of shenanigans that we are seeing in undermining the U.S. Postal Service and mail-in voting – service disruptions in targeted areas designed to delay receipt of ballots so they are discounted.
Could there be similar targeting of communities, either for counting or undercounting? Just the fear that the data will be used to inform ICE where undocumented people live is enough to discourage participation.
Indeed, even with the extraordinary conditions posed by COVID-19, economic upheavals and climate disasters, the Trump administration arbitrarily said it would halt the door-knock phase a month early by Sept. 30 regardless of whether a 100 percent count had been reached or not. (At this writing, litigation was continuing.)
And in July, Trump issued a memorandum that “illegal aliens” be excluded from the count for apportionment – something that you can’t even fathom since the census does not ask the citizenship question but is required to count “all persons” residing in the country as of April 1.
But the backdrop – and the skepticism over this administration’s fascistic tendency to terrorize undocumented people (there are an estimated 11 million) they call “criminal aliens” – means that there will be concern in immigrant households to participate, even when there are American citizen family members, and therefore produce an undercount, under-representation and under-allocation of resources.
This is despite the Census Bureau’s emphatic statement: “Your information is protected by law. The law requires the Census Bureau to keep your information confidential and use your responses only to produce statistics.
We cannot publicly release your responses in any way that could identify you. We will never share your information with immigration enforcement agencies such as ICE, law enforcement agencies such as the FBI or police, or allow it to be used to determine your eligibility for government benefits.” (www.census.gov)
This is significant for Nassau County, where the minority population reached 38 percent in 2016, up from 30 percent in 2005. The county has some 112,000 foreign-born nonresidents who account for 8.3 percent of the population.
I felt somewhat reassured after having a conversation with the regional director responsible not just for Long Island and New York City, but all of New York state, New England and New Jersey (one-eighth of the country). Jeff T. Behler has served in the Census Bureau since 1997, was the regional director for Dallas for the 2010 census and became the New York regional director in 2013.
The citizenship controversy, he told me, “helped and hurt in two different ways: it created fear of new citizens, maybe one person or members who aren’t citizens – raised fear in communities in our area, but educated our partners about Title 13 – what data can be used for and that we cannot give information collected out to anyone at any time for any reason.” But, he said, “trusted partners” in local communities – locally elected leaders, local service agencies, churches, ethnic organizations – should be able to assure non-citizen residents.
In February 2019, Curran launched an aggressive initiative to get full participation in the census. She formed the Nassau County Complete County Committee, in partnership with Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, comprised of 30 nonprofit, labor and faith-based groups, to serve as “trusted partners” to increase awareness and motivate residents to complete the census, especially among hard-to-reach minority and immigrant neighborhoods.
The efforts have paid off to a degree, and Nassau County began September 2020 with a 71.7% response rate to the census – the highest in the state, according to Rossana V. Weitekamp, partnership specialist, for the Census Bureau’s New York Regional Office, Field Division.
But certain areas, notably with high minority populations, are significantly under-represented so far: Elmont, 52.5 percent; Hempstead, 48.8 percent; New Cassel, 50.3 percent; Roosevelt, 53.8 percent. (To see how your community is faring, see Census Response Rate Map, which is updated daily.)
But the fact it is illegal for the Census Bureau to share household information with anyone (specific information that genealogists use is sealed for 72 years) may do little to allay concerns of skeptical immigrant communities since the Trump administration has so often been caught ignoring or breaking the law.
This year’s collection efforts also have been hampered by COVID – the libraries, churches and other areas where Census might set up laptop stations to have people send in their material – have been closed, posing additional challenge, and many people have evacuated.
“Our job is to count everyone, once and only once and in the right place, per the Constitution, everyone living in the U.S.,” Behler said. “We go to the furthest ends. We find the partners who understand that and want to support us. We provide mobile assistance, set up tablets at food distribution sites, COVID testing sites, so as people wait in line, we ask if they have filled out the census, and ‘Let me tell you why it is important’.”
People may have been displaced by COVID, the economy, natural disaster, but they should still fill out the form based on where they normally, primarily resided on April 1. If people have a vacation home, they should fill out the form but show zero number of inhabitants, so that the housing unit can be checked off the database. College students who were sent home from campuses should still fill out the census based on where they should have been on April 1, “reference day”. If a family had a baby after April 1, the child should not be included in the count.
“I‘m confident for the region that we can get to 100 percent by the end of September [if the litigation does not succeed in extending the count for a month,” he said. “We have more than enough resources. There aren’t any communities we can’t get in because of COVID or wildfires or emergencies nationwide.”
“We know what’s at stake. We are moving resources around where needed, getting people to where we need doorknockers the most. We have an amazing partner network who talk up the importance of being counted, even if undocumented, and that the personal or household information can’t be released to anyone at any time.
“It’s important we get it right, that the people who make the important decisions have the best possible data,” Behler said.
For more information on the census and how to be counted, visit the county’s website, www.nassaucountyny.gov/4710/Census-2020.