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Blair Horner: The Census Count Begins

It’s hard to keep track of the important news when living through what increasingly appears to be a pandemic.  Justifiably, public officials are focusing attention on the emerging coronavirus public threat.  That threat is certainly real, but the focus obscures public attention on other important issues.

Just such an issue is the census and that issue is beginning to heat up. 

First, some background.  The U.S. Constitution mandates that each decade the nation counts its population and it has been doing so since 1790. The U.S. census counts every resident in the United States.  The goal of the 2020 Census is to count everyone who lives in the United States as of April 1, 2020 (Census Day).  Census statistics are used to determine the number of seats each state holds in the U.S. House of Representatives and informs how billions of dollars in federal funds will be allocated by state, local and federal lawmakers annually for the next 10 years.  Beginning this week – March 12th – households across the nation will be able to respond online, by phone or by mail to questions posed by the census.

The census asks questions of people in homes and group living situations, including how many people live or stay in each home, and the sex, age and race of each person.  The goal is to count everyone once, only once, and in the right place – the place where they live as of April 1st.

Federal funds, grants and support to states, counties and communities are based on population totals and breakdowns by sex, age, race and other factors.  Community benefits the most when the census counts everyone. When all respond to the census, communities gets its share of the more than $675 billion per year in federal funds spent on schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other vital programs, and they get their fair share if the census is accurate and complete.

New York faces significant challenges in achieving a complete count for the 2020 Census. In many parts of the country, the self-response rate in the 2010 census was significantly higher than in New York. Wisconsin had the most successful response rate with 85 percent, while New York was 45th in the nation with a 76 percent response rate. 

Given that New York is second only to California in having the highest percentage of foreign-born residents (22 percent) in the country, confusion by these residents could lead to a substantial undercount.  Within New York, the boroughs of New York City and the surrounding suburban counties have the highest percentage of foreign-born residents.  Five upstate counties estimate that they have double-digit percentages of foreign-born residents; Putnam, Tompkins, Dutchess, Orange, and Albany.

In addition, colleges pose unique challenges.  There’s the challenge of simply informing students, a majority of whom have never participated in the decennial census, about the detailed questionnaire they will be receiving from the federal government and why it's important to fill it out.

The spread of misinformation on social media, misconceptions on how students are counted and propaganda campaigns that generate mistrust in government are also barriers that could impact student participation.  A controversial plan by the Trump administration to add a question about citizenship status on the census questionnaire, while ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, has already made some students and immigrants distrust the government's motives for doing the count and will likely discourage participation.

To make matters worse, scam artists can use it as an opportunity to con people out of private information.  They may pretend to be from the census.  We all know that thieves are always looking for ways to steal personal info and then use it to commit identity theft and other frauds.

In order to protect yourself from a scam, remember that census takers must show a photo ID with the U.S. Department of Commerce seal.  Second, the Census Bureau will never ask for your full Social Security number, bank account or credit card numbers, money or donations, or anything on behalf of a political party. 

Despite all of that, however, answering the census really does matter – it matters politically, economically and socially.  This week marks the beginning of that once-in-a-decade responsibility.

Let’s make sure we all get counted.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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