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2020 Census: What It Takes To Count Everyone In The Empire State

Courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

Americans will be able to fill out the 2020 Census questionnaire online for the first time in U.S. history. SUNY Empire State College will facilitate the plan in New York by opening up its computer labs at locations across the state to people who have limited access to the internet.  

Jim Malatras is president of SUNY Empire State College. He’s also a co-chair of the New York State Complete Count Commission, helping direct the state’s efforts in the 2020 Census. 

Malatras spoke with WSHU Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser about how New York State is preparing for the census. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

How has New York State prepared for this new online option for filling out the census?

The state has taken an all hands on deck approach and literally every state agency, not-for-profit, community, local governments, colleges and universities all across the state are working together to make sure that every New Yorker is counted this year.  

How far back did this effort begin? Because it sounds like a big project.  

Yeah. The state commission that I co-chaired with the secretary of state began its work in March of 2019. And we held hearings all across the state. And we have a very large state, from Buffalo to Long Island. Really getting a sense of where are the challenging areas. Let’s figure out where our communities that are potentially difficult to reach are and then come up with an action plan.

But the state itself, even a year or two prior to that, began pulling together addresses that they knew should be updated with the federal government to make sure that at least the addresses were ready to go. And they made something like 900,000 corrections. So for the past several years the state of New York and its partners have really been working to make ensure that we have a robust effort.

As you mentioned, this is the first time in the history of the census that the census will be done largely online and it was exacerbated, especially in blue states like New York, with the citizenship question controversy, which many of your listeners know about, did have a negative effect even though it’s not on the census short form this year. 

But compared to California, we’re second in the nation with the number of foreign-born residents in our state. And the Constitution is clear. Count every person living in your state regardless of the citizenship status. So we’re trying to overcome these big obstacles that were thrown our way that we haven’t seen in past census efforts.  

Now I understand Empire State College is going to be opening up its location on some of its campuses so that folks who don’t have access to high speed internet can come on to the campus and use your labs. And I understand you have close to three dozen campuses around the state. How many of those will be involved? 

We’re going to open up all of our 30 plus locations, and we are a decentralized college within New York State. So we have locations and campuses all across the state. We’re going to open up all of our locations. We’re going to start announcing our hours next week so people can see exactly where to go. 

And we have a school of labor in our college. We’re going to train some of the folks in the labor organizations that get educated at our school to also help in that process in reaching out to communities.

So we think it’s really important because it’s the right thing to do. Constitutionally we have to do it. And if you don’t count every resident of New York State, you lose precious federal dollars and that comes down to transportation aid, to higher education aid so we’re happy to be part of that.

You are also the co-chair of the New York State Complete Count Commission, which released a report that included communities in the state that tend to be undercounted. Can you touch on what communities are in that group that tend to be undercounted?

Well it’s interesting. If you put it in perspective, George Washington in the very first census in 1790, lamented about an undercount. At the time because he was fearful people didn’t want to pay taxes. So he thought there were millions more people in the country than there were. So we’ve always had this challenge.

But in many states, and in New York in particular, we have found there have been historical undercounts of our communities, communities of color, children under the age of 5 have historically been undercounted in our state.

This year though we’re finding, because of the online component, some of the communities that have been historically overcounted, like our older adults, may be at risk for an undercount this year. So as part of the Commission process, we put together what we called an At Risk Index, to go into our 4,900 census tracts to take a deep dive into who are in those census tracts, who could potentially be at risk. We presented this mapping and data. Now communities can go to it and say OK, now we have some issues with our older New Yorkers – we have to work on the digital piece. 

So it was a way to tell those communities, here are some of the challenges. And communities that you have, now you can target your education and outreach in a more targeted way in order to make sure people are comfortable filling out the census.  

In terms of support that’s coming from the federal government, do you feel you’re getting enough to complete the census?

I’ll be blunt on the federal piece. The Census Bureau staff on the ground in New York State have been tremendously helpful. But the federal actions have been wholly counterproductive and it has been really left to the states to fill the void.

And, Tom, let me give you a perfect example. Translation services are critical in many states. Not just in New York, but in California or Alabama or Tennessee or Kentucky, and this year the Census Bureau is only doing a fraction of the languages needed to meet those challenges. We have more than 200 languages spoken in New York State. They’re providing the translation services for maybe half of those languages. So really then it’s left to New York State using our resources to meet those needs.  

Are you confident then that you can indeed complete the census successfully given the pullback in federal support?

Tom, I’m a New Yorker. We have swagger like no one else has. Governor Cuomo has been absolutely committed to this process. So although we have a lot of challenges, we have never seen a census weaponized like this in many ways for political purposes. I’m confident that of all the effort going on in New York State, we’re going to have a really good census. 

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.