Feds get ahead on counting heads

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It’s still five months before the 2020 census is set to officially begin, yet federal officials already are working to ensure the once-a-decade constitutionally required headcount of every person in the country goes smoothly. And that means looking deeply to the grassroots level.

The U.S. Census Bureau is partnering with a number of on-the-ground institutions like Lehman College as a way to provide easy access and information to everyone who must be surveyed, something especially important in places notoriously hard to count, said Maria Matos, a partnership specialist with the bureau’s New York regional office.

“We’re considered the trusted voices,” said José Higuera López, the deputy director of the Mexican Studies Institute at Lehman. “We’re partnering with the census and informing these communities of being counted.”

Being trusted is important, because many communities have anything but trust when it comes to the federal government, Higuera López said — especially immigrants. Although there was a battle from the White House to include such questions, the census survey will not gather citizenship data, he added, and needs to count everyone regardless of citizenship status.

“If you’re part of the community, if you look like the community, that’s important,” Higuera López said. “That’s a good strategy.”

Lehman recently hosted a panel bringing together professors with community leaders like Assemblyman Marcos Crespo and representatives from the census bureau. And the Trump administration’s failed attempt to make citizenship a focal point of the census was not sidestepped.

In fact, Crespo believes that while courts have rejected the question, the intended damage to depress responses from immigrants has already been inflicted, meaning this could be a specific community severely undercounted in 2020.

Solving that, Matos said, could come from making community connections, and relaying how important being counted is. The United States uses census data when it comes to funding programs like Head Start and Medicare. It also dictates how many congressmen a state can elect, and even how New York is represented in the Electoral College, which ultimately chooses who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

In the 2010 census, the neighborhoods around Riverdale, Fieldston and Spuyten Duyvil had a return rate of 80 percent or above, meaning that most households responded immediately by mail.

By contrast, Marble Hill and Kingsbridge had a 70 percent return rate, making them some of the hardest to count tracts in the country, according to published reports.

When that happens, someone must go out to each uncounted address to collect information — a process both inconvenient and costly. The census bureau is expected to hire 84,000 temporary workers to count those not counting themselves.

“We hire very locally, so you’re comfortable in the community, and you know it best,” said Lisa Moore, an assistant regional census manager. “We don’t want to send anyone from Manhattan up. The language skills need to match. We want to have familiar faces in the community.”

And, for the first time, those workers don’t have to be citizens. Instead, the only requirement for census workers is that they be legal residents. That could help solve some of the language gap issues of the past, Lehman’s Higuera López said.

“For me, specifically, in Mexican studies, we need a way to find indigenous communities that we know live here,” he said. “We identified four main groups, and for us, this is a great opportunity, that when they fill out the census, they fill out ‘race’ and they choose ‘other,’ and then we can target those communities, those religions, and those languages so we don’t lose them.”

Four such communities have been identified in the Bronx — Mixteco, Zapoteco, Triqui and Nahuatl. That means hiring native speakers of those languages is crucial for building that support with the census.

But counting problems extend beyond immigrants and those with language barriers, Higuera López said. Children and renters also are historically difficult to account for. But it’s important to ensure they’re counted, too.

“A town might see a need for all-day kindergarten if there’s a lot of children coming into the district,” Moore said. “The National School Lunch Program is based on population. If a tract has a large number of married families with children under 18, we want them to know what the census means to their children. We want to make sure they know about Title 1 grants and Pell grants that are appropriated by census data.”

Even programs like Meals on Wheels are funded based on census data, Crespo said. There’s a lot at stake for communities that are undercounted.

Census surveys are offered by mail, by phone and, for the first time, online. Yet all the data collected is confidential, and any public disclosure is strictly statistical, Moore said. Information like immigration status or the number of people living in an apartment will not be shared.

Moore wants that word to get out because she understands some people distrust the system.

But it’s those same people that have the most to gain.

“For a lot of immigrant families, it’s their first census, they have the opportunity to have a voice,” Moore said. “We want them to know that it’s safe, easy and important.”

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