From coronavirus to public charge rule, Census 2020 has myriad challenges to increase head count

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New York City census officials and community organizers were featured panelists at a Census outreach meet at the New York Immigration Coalition, in New York City, on March 2, 2020. Photo: Sujeet Rajan

NEW YORK – The controversial citizenship question on Census 2020 favored by the Trump administration, which was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court, seems inconsequential now in the age of the coronavirus, which threatens to be a bigger dampener as America’s decennial census is set to roll out in a digital format for the first time, starting from March 12, through July 31.

A South Asian and Indo-Caribbean media roundtable, held at the New York Immigration Coalition, in New York City, on March 2, focused on the critical importance of the census in determining billions of dollars for education, healthcare, housing, transportation, and more, as well as ensuring that all New Yorkers from all backgrounds are fully represented in the nation’s count of its populace.

Panelists at the meet included Meeta Anand, Senior Fellow, New York Immigration Coalition, who was the moderator; Amit Singh Bagga, Deputy Director, Mayor’s Census Office; Fahd Ahmed, Executive Director, DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving); Aliya Bhatia, Census Manager, ABNY (Association for a Better New York); Mariam Rauf, Census Outreach Manager, Asian American Federation; Ahsia Badi, New York State Census Director, Emgage USA; and Annetta Seecharran, Executive Director, Chhaya Community Development Corporation.

The purpose of the meet was to ensure greater participation from the Asian communities, who are in more numbers in every borough of the Big Apple. Census officials have said the self-response rate of New Yorkers during the 2010 Census was barely 62%, well below the national average of 76%.

Bagga, who spoke in English and Hindi, pointed out how vital it’s for communities to be counted as that determines the resources allocated for a decade.

He said that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office has invested $40 million for the 2020 Census, unlike 10 years ago during Mayor Bloomberg’s time, who did not allocate any resources to outreach ethnic Asian communities.

The $40 million would go towards a four-pronged strategy, including a Complete Count Fund, under which 157 different organizations will work towards greater participation from all residents; increased staff for field operations; getting access to 89 different city agencies who reach New Yorkers; and an extensive media campaign, informed Bagga.

The public charge rule, which came into effect last month, and has the capability to punish residents who either have no papers or are on a visa and avail of government-doled benefits, and seek permanent residency down the road, also came up for discussion at the meet.

The timing of the public charge rule has already put doubts in the minds of those who were availing such benefits, and many are wary of information that they submit to the Census landing with immigration authorities. Bagga, however, emphasized the firm measures in place to secure such data from prying federal agencies, or even from the New York state government.

However, with access this time to fill in a census form online, the process has been much more easier, and less cumbersome for those who didn’t want to waste time mailing back a form, or to risk attention from interfering landlords, who rent out illegal dwelling space in New York City, especially.

NPR reported this week that the Census Bureau is expecting, based on an earlier test run, about six out of 10 households that fill out a form on their own to do so online. For those who have limited Internet access or prefer to stay offline, the bureau is also collecting census responses over the phone and on paper forms, which are scheduled to arrive at some homes by mid-March and then in early April to every household that hasn’t responded by then.

“People can reply almost anywhere, at any time,” Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said last month in a written statement to lawmakers on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, while also noting the web form and call centers are available in 13 languages.

U.S. Census pamphlets and paperwork are pictured in this photo illustration in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

NPR has learned that as a precaution, the bureau has increased its printing order to prepare enough paper forms for every home address in the country.

Still, a snafu with the upcoming digital rollout, some lawmakers and other census advocates worry, could derail the constitutionally mandated head count and undermine public trust in data that carry at least a decade’s worth of implications across the U.S. The results of the count are used to redraw voting districts and redistribute congressional seats, Electoral College votes and an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding among the states, the report said.

It’s the coronavirus situation which could impinge on the 2020 Census, though, especially for those who are living in the US for less than 10 years and have never participated in a census before. If the situation worsens in New York City, then it would come in the way of social organizations to convene meets to educate newcomers, or neighborhood outreach programs.

Deputy Manhattan Borough President Aldrin Bonilla, a longtime veteran of the census in New York and the head of the Manhattan Complete Count Committee, believes there will be “serious impacts” from COVID-19 on the census, reported Bklynr.

For now, preparations are going on at a full swing.

Queens Acting Borough President Sharon Lee announced this week the 2020 Census Resource Assistance Center at Queens Borough Hall will open to the public beginning Thursday, March 5, offering Queens residents the ability to access Census outreach materials, ask questions of trained volunteers and apply for 2020 Census-related jobs.

A press release said Lee also continues to accept applications from not-for-profits interested in receiving state funding for Census outreach efforts in Queens.

“It’s all hands on deck for the 2020 Census,” said Lee. “We must ensure every single Queens resident – of every age and regardless of documentation status – is counted. When we are not counted, we are rendered invisible and irrelevant for our fair share of federal representation and funding. An undercount is something the Borough of Families simply cannot afford. The future of our county, city and state depend on a full and accurate 2020 Census count.”

InsiderNJ reported that the Community Foundation of New Jersey announced it has contributed $80,000 toward a pooled fund focused on ensuring an accurate and complete census count in New Jersey in 2020.

The City University of New York estimates that one in four New Jerseyans will be “hard-to-count.”

The Census Bureau considers hard-to-count populations those that are hard to contact due to high mobility, hard to interview due to language or literacy barriers, hard to persuade due to suspicion of the government or low civic engagement, or hard to locate due to persons wishing to remain hidden. Many individuals in these hard-to-count populations are also the primary clientele of social service organizations.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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