The effects of COVID-19 have made collecting 2020 census data more difficult. With delays in census operations stalling momentum and despite the census self-response deadline pushed to Oct. 31, advocates have had the tough task of dealing with these and other obstacles.
Currently, New York lags behind other states responding to the census, ranking 38th according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli (D). Only 57.8 percent of New Yorkers have responded compared to the national average of 62.3 percent. On the North Shore of Long Island, numbers are better but still are slightly behind from the equivalent date 10 years ago.
‘These communities are being undercounted and under resourced.’
Brookhaven Town, as of July 20, has a total self-response rate of 66.9 percent, Smithtown has a response rate of 75.6 percent and Huntington’s response rate sits at 71.5.
Rebecca Sanin, president of the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island which has taken a leadership role in promoting the census, said when the pandemic hit, the organization had to pivot and adjust its strategies.
“We had to spread awareness and continue to promote the census virtually, as a way to handle the current situation,” she said. “We’re hoping to resume in-person outreach soon.”
The pandemic limited what the council could do, though it did create a COVID tool kit for its partners, which include over 300 nonprofits, religious organizations, business organizations and local governments. In addition, advocates were able to hand out census material and resource packets at Suffolk County’s six testing sites and at area food banks.
“The census may not be your first priority right now, it is so important that we get an accurate count,” Sanin said. “The current crisis has made it more clear the need for federal and state dollars for emergency response.”
Due to the 2010 census, New York lost two congressional seats. Some fear this year’s count could lose the state one or two more. Also on the line is billions of dollars annually in federal funds that could be used for road work, school aid, grants and Medicaid funding.
In Suffolk, some communities are harder to count than others especially those with minority populations and also parts of the East End. The Town of Riverhead, for example, has a response rate of 56 percent. Other areas with a high density of minorities, including a small section of Huntington Station, have a response rate of just 45.3 percent.
The current and past censuses have not discriminated between documented and undocumented residents, as the survey is meant to give a full count to a place’s number of inhabitants. However, President Donald Trump (R) has repeatedly moved to discount undocumented immigrants from the census, including adding a citizenship question on the survey. Those efforts have been blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, July 21, Trump signed an executive order that would excluded undocumented immigrants from being counted in congressional districts, data which is used to divide up seats in Congress. The order argues the 14th Amendment’s definition of “persons” in regards the enumeration requirement was not defined, giving the president the authority to determine who counts on the census.
Advocates said this could have grave repercussions for Long Island’s final count.
“We are horrified by the president’s attempt, once again, to prevent an accurate census count, dehumanizing our neighbors in the immigrant community and obstructing the fair distribution of desperately needed funding,” Sanin said in a statement. “Today, the president has launched an attack against our neighbors on Long Island and across the United States who don’t have documented status, claiming that their humanity, their very existence, simply doesn’t count.”
According to data from the state comptroller’s office, small municipalities normally have smaller response rates. The Village of Shoreham, with a population of just over 500, currently has a 50 percent response rate.
“These communities are being undercounted and under resourced,” the president of the Heath & Welfare Council said.
An addition to the 2020 census has been the new ways people can respond. Individuals can now fill out the census over the internet, by phone or mailing in a paper survey. Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington have had internet response rates of 55.3, 64.2 and 62.2 percent, respectively.
The council has been tracking internet/phone response rates in the county and for the most part the results have been positive. Though Sanin stressed that certain communities and groups of people may not have the luxury of responding that way.
“Lots of communities will not be able to use those methods,” she said. “We will have to escalate our outreach in other ways.”
One of those ways is going to door to door.
With the expectation of eventually restarting in-person outreach by going door to door or handing out information at public places, the council has continued to recruit census ambassadors to ensure all responses are being tallied. In the past they have given information at parks, summer concerts and other events
“We’ve had to change our strategy, we still need to spread the importance of the census and our work and keep raising awareness,” Sanin said. “We’re really trying to keep the momentum [going].”