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Critics: NY Report On 2020 Census Preparation Is Too Little, Too late

A state commission to oversee the 2020 census count for New York adopted its action plan Tuesday. But immigrant rights groups worry that it’s too little, too late. 

The commission gave unanimous approval to a plan that includes directing resources to “hard to count” communities, estimated to contain at least 4.8 million people. Many are in the African American and Latinx communities. But there’s also concern that, since the census will for the first time be conducted mostly online, predominately white rural New Yorkers with poor internet access may also be missed.  

Jim Malatras, Commission chair and former director of state operations under Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, says there’s a lot at stake, including federally funds for health care programs, food stamps, and school lunches for the needy.  

“If you have 100 students but you only count 75 in a census, you’re still paying for 100 students,” said Malatras, who is currently president of SUNY’s Empire State College. “You’re just not getting funding for 100 students any longer.”

The census is also used to allot political representation. New York’s overall population is growing at a slower rate than other states, and it already stands to lose two congressional seats.  

Malatras says concerns include an underfunded federal census bureau. There was also publicity over President Donald Trump’s administration’s unsuccessful attempt to include a citizenship question on the census. 

“There’s a chilling effect to that. Some people think it’s still there,” Malatras said. “And that may lead to them not actually filling out the census.”   

Malatras says the commission wants to work with community groups, unions, and state agencies, to counteract that.  

The plan was issued several months after its deadline. Under a state law approved by the legislature and signed by Cuomo in March 2018, the commission was to have completed its report on funding needed for the census count by January 2019.  But the commissioners were not appointed until January, and the first of the two reports due in July was released October 8. 

Malatras says though there is a lot to do, he’s confident the state will be ready when the count begins early next year.  He says some of the report’s recommendations, like a having a robust marketing campaign for the census, can’t be carried out until next year anyway.  

“I think there is plenty of time to do things,” he said.  

But immigrants’ rights groups say the delay has been harmful. Meeta Anand is with the New York Immigration Coalition.  

“To say that they are on target by issuing it on October 8 is incorrect,” Anand said.  

Anand says immigrants’ rights groups wanted $40 million to pay for programs and staff to help convince people in under counted communities that it is in their interest to complete the census. But they say only $20 million is was included. 

Some commissioners also expressed concerns about the delays and the funding amounts. Jose Calderon, President of the Hispanic Federation, was appointed by Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.  

“It’s important to release this money as soon as possible because the reality is we are delayed in the process,” Calderon said.  

Esmeralda Simmons, with the Center for Law & Social Justice at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College, also a Heastie appointee, pressed for the commission to more clearly spell out the exact mechanisms for getting everything done in time, and whether Request for Proposals or RFP’s would be required.    

Amy Torres, with the Chinese-American Planning Council says the commissioners continued “hemming and hawing over what the right amount of money is, how it should go out” at this late date has caused her group to question Cuomo’s commitment to an effect and accurate count. 

“It further shows that the governor is not truly interested in supporting a full and complete count of New York State,” Torres said. 

Senior advisor to Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi says there’s been no foot dragging. 

“That’s 100% incorrect,” said Azzopardi who said the governor is committed to ensuring every “man woman and child” is properly counted, and that the census is not a “backdoor invitation” to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.  

“We’ve been all over that for the last several years,” he said.   

The count begins April 1 st 2020 and will continue through the summer. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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