Article and photo by Annmarie Gajdos
Libraries are New York City’s largest partner in ensuring an accurate 2020 Census count. They serve as trusted messengers in difficult-to-count communities and provide free computer and broadband access for individuals—mostly in poor, rural and minority communities—who lack the digital access to complete the census online. However, the citywide closure of these facilities due to COVID-19 jeopardizes the efforts of libraries to help residents in hard-to-count neighborhoods complete the census.
Although, for the first time, the census can be completed online, many community engagement leaders are concerned about how they can reach residents who do not have access to online platforms. Another complication is that federal census employees are the only individuals permitted to fill out paper census forms, which were mailed out on April 8th, for another individual.
“Not having daily in-person access to these [hard-to-count] populations makes the census work particularly challenging, especially because many of these folks depend on the library for their computer and internet access,” explained Nicholas Higgins, chief librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library, adding that it makes the library’s efforts to transition its work to online platforms “virtually inaccessible for those who we need to reach the most.”
Added Ahsia Badi, New York State Census Director for Emgage USA, who works on getting out the count for Muslim community members: “It’s really the one-on-one help that we’re concerned about.”
In early March, the New York Public Library held one of its first census events, “The City and the Census,” which addressed New York City’s historical struggle with undercounting—a struggle that dates back to 1890—as well as its current challenges. For example, the number of foreign languages spoken by New Yorkers has tripled to 637 since the 2010 Census, according to the Endangered Language Alliance. Yet, the census is currently only offered in 13 languages, making it difficult to get responses from many new immigrants.
Undercounts place the city at risk of losing its share of $675 billion in federal funding for public service projects, health insurance, housing assistance, and education, as well as state and Congressional representation.
President Trump’s unsuccessful effort to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census raised the stakes for this decennial census. Although New York prevailed in a lawsuit challenging the citizenship question (New York v. United States Department of Commerce, 2019), experts believe that confusion around the citizenship question likely suppressed the count, especially among New York City’s 500,000 undocumented immigrants.
“This year in particular, we need to convey that the census is for all of us,” said Amit S. Bagga, the Deputy-Director of the NYC Census 2020.
The pandemic, which caused about 100,000 deaths as of the end of May, and the resulting lockdown, has made the work of completing the census—and libraries’ outreach efforts—much more difficult.
In New York City, social distancing rules mean that most census-count efforts have transitioned to a virtual platform. New York City enlisted the help of celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Cardi B to create and share public service announcements on their social media accounts.
The public libraries also continue to promote the census online. “During the Library’s temporary closure due to the coronavirus, we are actively promoting efforts, sharing resources via email, social media, and our website to support New Yorkers in filling out their census forms,” said Amy Geduldig, the Assistant Director of Media Relations for the New York Public Library,
The stakes are particularly high in Brooklyn, one of the most undercounted New York City boroughs, according to the public library’s Higgins. The Brooklyn Public Library has focused on digital outreach–promoting educational content through its social media channels. The library’s direct-mail campaign hopes to target 10,000 Brooklynites. Text and phone banking via a partnership with the Flatbush YMCA and multi-lingual virtual programming is also being offered. For Census Day, the library released a virtual census video in Spanish, as well as a new episode of the library’s “Borrowed” podcast, which resulted in over 1,500 views and 890 downloads, respectively.
Yet library staff are still worried about whether the census will accurately count underprivileged communities. As of April 21st, Brooklyn and Queens had the lowest self-response rates in New York City, at 38.1 percent and 39.2 percent, respectively. In April, the Census Bureau postponed the deadline for completing census forms to October 31, 2020 because of the pandemic,
There is good reason for concern. Nearly one-third of the households in New York City lack regular access to the internet; thirty percent of these individuals are Hispanic and Black. Thus the New York Census Bureau initially intended to create 200 pop-up centers around the city where individuals could receive help filling out their forms. In addition, all 110 library branches in New York City’s most-undercounted areas had planned to host educational events from mid-March to July. This is no longer possible.
Lurie Daniel Favors, Esq, the Interim Executive Director for the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, believes that educating individuals about the census and offering multiple formats for individuals to fill it out is the best way for minority communities to get counted. “My grandmother would never have gone online to do this, neither would my older aunts and uncles,” said Favors. “Being able to have multiple points of access is really what we have been communicating.”
The indefinite closure of New York’s public libraries significantly reduces the access points for individuals of limited financial means. While social media engagement and online campaigns may reach younger residents, they are not trusted or accessible sources of information for many minorities. The census highlights one more vital civic role for libraries; their closure does not bode well either for improving the census count of historically underrepresented populations nor for New York City, which will lose funding if many communities are undercounted.