Virus Alters Census Strategy in Crown Heights

Article and photos by Ayse Kelce

Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, with its large immigrant and minority populations, long suffered severe undercounts during past census enumerations. So, before the coronavirus hit New York City, local politicians in the area worked to get the word out  about the importance of counting every resident during the 2020 U.S. Census.

As recently as Feb. 29, State Senator Zellnor Y. Myrie and Assemblywoman Diana C. Richardson were going door to door with volunteers, talking about the importance of the census for their community specifically and urging residents to fill out the census.

When the virus hit, the leaders changed course – moving their census efforts online. “With the U.S. Census Bureau suspending field operations and our temporary inability to do the kinds of in-person grassroots census work we have been doing since the fall, there is no doubt that this is a challenge. We have continued to promote the census digitally and via paper mail, most recently with a mailer that went out to our entire district in four languages,” Myrie’s office wrote in an email on March 23.

State Senator Myrie and Assemblywoman Richardson organized a canvassing event to inform Crown Heights residents about the census before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Myrie also has been active on social media–mainly Twitter — reminding the public to fill out the census. “We’re calling on all black millennials and generation Z to fill out the census today because you have the power to change the world,” Myrie tweeted on March 27. He also tweeted about other generally undercounted groups like children. 

Myrie and other officials have reason to be concerned. Some census tracts in the Crown Heights area had response rates lower than 50% in 2010’s count. African Americans and Latinos who account for 62 percent and 10 percent of Crown Heights residents, respectively, are, historically, among the most undercounted populations.

Moreover, a large percentage of residents who are not citizens—38 percent, according to the 2014-2018 American Community Survey—pose an additional challenge to getting out the census count this year. Although President Trump’s effort to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census failed, that effort raised fears among non-citizens that the census could be used to round up undocumented immigrants—even though, by law, the federal government cannot use census information for such purposes.

“Census information is safe, it is secure, it is protected by law. So it cannot be shared with immigration services. It cannot be shared with law enforcement, and it cannot be used against you,” said Jonathan Timm, a spokesperson for Myrie.

A low census count could cost the Crown Heights neighborhood both funding for social services, as well as government representation.

State Senator Myrie and Assemblywoman Richardson knock on doors to talk about the census.

“Very rarely, do we get to control the trajectory of our neighborhoods,” said Myrie during the canvassing event in February. But, with the census “you literally have the destiny of the community in your hands. Less than 10 questions, that take less than 10 minutes, and it determines the next 10 years.”

Schools, for example, could suffer because of an undercount. “When only 10 children are counted but 30 show up on the first day of school, we are now beginning to do more with less,” Richardson said, noting that children are among the most under-counted groups. “The users of the system are greater than the resources that were sent because they were undercounted.”

Some chronically undercounted states started allocating money for their census efforts earlier to ensure broader outreach. New York state allocated a $60 million budget for the census compared to California’s $187.2 million.

California started its gross roots efforts as early as 2017, focusing mainly on schools. On the other hand, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced local governments can apply for their shares of the $20 million in funding available for census outreach on Dec. 4, only a few months before the census arrived in mail. 

“I think the city has done a better job, but it is disappointing that there has been a lag,” said Myrie, comparing New York City and New York state’s efforts to fund the census outreach. “But we are going to make do with what we have.” 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio launched Complete Count Campaign in January with the support of more than 150 community groups. The mayor and the city council allocated $40 million towards the census outreach for 2020. 

“We learned that the census is coming and I wanted to volunteer,” said Kathleen Livingston, one of the volunteers from the Crown Heights neighborhood who went door to door with Myrie and Richardson in February. “This happens once in 10 years, and it determines most of the federal funding that our community gets as well as the number of representatives,” she added.

In light of COVID-19, which has meant that most in-person outreach programs have ground to a halt, de Blasio asked the U.S. Census Bureau to extend the deadline for the self-response period to Sept. 30 from July 31 and reschedule the Early Nonresponse Followup, which  is to enumerate college and university students who live in off-campus housing before the end of the spring semester when they may leave for another residence. 

Around 50 volunteers gathered in front of State Senator Myrie’s office for census canvassing on Feb. 29.

New York City faces other serious census-count challenges in addition to hard-to-count neighborhoods. About 10 percent of New York City’s census tracts include college students and other transient populations. With many college students leaving New York City as colleges switch to distance learning, students will not be able to fill the census in the city where they spend most of their time. 

“Now more than ever, we need every New Yorker to be counted,” said Julie Menin, Director of NYC Census 2020. “The U.S. Census Bureau must acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic is a barrier to an accurate count and that a lack of a timeline adjustment may result in an inaccurate or incomplete count.”