Governments at every level are preparing for next year’s U.S. Census. And with billions of federal dollars and the potential loss of one or perhaps two seats in the House of Representatives statewide hanging in the balance, Congress and New York City came together Tuesday afternoon to see how they can help each other secure an accurate count of the population in the five boroughs.
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held a subcommittee hearing at the request of Queens Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn) and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx, Queens).
U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens, Nassau) also sat on the dais. The hearing had two separate panels of witnesses, including officials from the city, community-based organizations and other groups.
Raskin said about 80 percent of the Census will be conducted online, with people getting instructions by mail. The aim, as always, is to get as many people as possible to comply voluntarily.
He spoke about the recent census taken in his daughter’s class at school.
“She said, ‘We have nine African Americans, six white Americans, five Hispanic Americans and three not-present Americans,’” Raskin said. “Don’t be a ‘not present’ American. Be counted and stand up.”
He said Census data is used to divide up $675 billion in federal aid for Medicare, Medicaid, highway and transportation infrastructure, education and nutrition programs including school lunches, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Women, Infants and Children funding.
Maloney said the importance of an accurate count cannot be overstated, with New York receiving $73 billion this year. Councilman Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn) said in his testimony that Queens alone last year received more than $518 million in SNAP assistance.
“We’re going to provide service to people whether they are counted or not,” Maloney said. “We might as well get the funding for it.”
Talk turned early to the citizenship question that President Trump is looking to put on the form, which many in New York believe is a deliberate attempt by the administration to intimidate immigrants and drive down counts in areas such as New York where they live in large numbers.
Raskin cautioned his fellow representatives about discussing the matter in detail at the request of legal counsel as the House is party to a lawsuit to exclude the question, which he said has not been on the Census for 60 years.
He pointed out that while women, children, noncitizens and, at first, those who were not major land owners could not vote in the newly formed United States, the government required that they be counted anyway.
“We don’t fully appreciate how radical our founders were,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Whether you were rich or poor, landowner or not, documented or not, you should be counted in the United States of America.”
Meeks said this Census could be the most important federal effort since the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the mid-1960s.
“That’s what at stake here,” he said.
Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, concurred, saying he is working on his fourth Census, and that he has never been more concerned about an accurate count than in 2020.
New York State, which had 45 seats in the House of Representatives before the 1950 Census, has lost at least two seats in every count since. Multiple published reports state that the existing 27 seats almost certainly will be reduced by one and possibly two as a result of the 2020 count.
Meeks believes a good deal of that would come from undercounting in New York City, though he acknowledged there has been a mass exodus from upstate counties as well in the last decade.
Several speakers said the new emphasis on online counting could lead to undercounts of people like senior citizens and lower-income residents who do not have access to broadband services.
Others said many immigrants, even if documented, can come from countries where people have reasons to fear the government.
Julie Menin, census director for the city, said Mayor de Blasio is earmarking $26 million for Census outreach, an effort that will bring mobile facilities to churches, libraries and other community centers in order to make it more available — and comfortable — for people in traditionally hard-to-count communities.
Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigrant Coalition, said community-based organizations need to be brought in to assure a more full count.
But he also would like more details for how the state is planning to direct $20 million in promised Census outreach money. And he is wary of the $26 million being offered by the de Blasio administration.
“It isn’t enough,” he said.
Melva Miller, executive vice president of the Association for a Better New York and former deputy borough president in Queens, said local governments are not the only ones who use and benefit from Census data.
Businesses, she said, rely on it for things such as marketing and product introduction.
“Billions of dollars and thousands of jobs are at stake,” she said.