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The Unclear Path For New York’s Belated Census Effort

U.S. Census Bureau

The state commission set up to make sure all New Yorkers are counted in the 2020 Census has been plagued with delays, vacant positions and a budget half of what was requested by state legislators. And now some commissioners are worried the task force won’t be able to allocate money until June.

“I’m concerned about that, maybe it won’t be a six-month delay, but at this point none of the commissions have had so much as an outline to look at,” said Esmeralda Simmons, executive director of CUNY’s Center for Law and Social Justice and an Assembly Democratic appointee to the commission.

The federal government spends some $900 billion a year based on census data. If certain groups aren’t counted, they effectively don’t exist. And the 2020 Census presents new challenges – perceived hostility toward minorities and immigrants, underfunding at the federal level and the fact that this decade’s count will be done online.  

“We have a huge mountain to climb. It was Mount McKinley, and now it’s looking like Mount Everest,” Simmons said.

Community-based organizations have pushed for the state to fund them and others to act as trusted messengers to convince people, particularly those mistrustful or disengaged from government, to fill out the census. These nonprofits include local social service agencies, advocacy groups and churches.

Legislators had wanted to spend $40 million to make sure all New Yorkers are counted, but Governor Andrew Cuomo gave the commission $20 million. The commissioners Cuomo appointed circulated a memo criticizing the higher estimate because of its high per person cost.

“No state has anywhere near $75 or $25 per person hard-to-count,” said Jim Malatras of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and co-chair of the commission.

Instead, he says, $2 per person is more reasonable. He stresses that funding at a lower per-person cost does not mean there will be less outreach. But he does say it requires building a network of partnerships with private philanthropic groups, unions, local governments, state agencies, all of whom would chip in their own money.

“We have ways of filling those jobs with our SUNY and CUNY systems,” he said, adding that the federal government would pay for that.

The $40 million estimate was calculated by David Dyssegaard Kallick, deputy director of the Fiscal Policy Institute. He says with spending at $2 per person, each person would get about eight minutes of outreach, which may be fine for a lot of people who can be reached in meetings or by email.

“But some people are going to need more than that, a little bit of individual help to understand what the forms are, and to feel convinced that the census is a safe thing to answer.”

Kallick’s funding analysis is the first of its kind, so there’s really nothing to compare it to, according to Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant to states and nonprofits on census matters.

While she agrees the amount of money is important, when the money goes out is just as important.

“New York is moving along, but it needs to ramp up its effort to ensure that money is in the pipeline and out the door very soon,” she said.

According to Lowenthal, some states already have grant programs in place to start spending money.

It’s unclear if New York will have its plan done by the end of the month, or next month. The last public hearing is scheduled for May 6.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.