Get counted: Accelerated drive to prevent under-count of South Asians, Indians in Census 2020

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NYC Census 2020 holds a rally Aug. 29, 2020, outside the Flushing Library, in Queens, N.Y., with elected officials and community-based nonprofits. Deputy Director, Amit Singh Bagga, second from right, is seen being interviewed here, talking about the dire importance of the 2020 Census to our communities in terms of funding and representation. Photo: Courtesy Varsha Mathrani

Sudha Acharya, executive director of South Asian Council for Social Services in Queens, N.Y. just got off the Zoom call with the Queens Borough President’s Complete Count Steering Committee. Her organization is actively assisting with getting more community members fill out the Census 2020 forms before Sept. 30, 2020,  so that Asians, including those of Indian origin, are not undercounted when it comes to federal and state dollars apportioned for various services in the national state and local budgets.

Asian Americans, including South Asians have been coming up short in the Tri-state area, as well as in other states such as  Massachusetts, California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Hawaii, and leaders at all levels are worried they could lose out on community resources for the next 10 years, because a Census is done only once in a decade.

Amit Singh Bagga, deputy director of NYC Census 2020, tweeted back in May 2019 when he was appointed that the City would be investing $26 million into the effort to ensure “all of us are counted.”

“The stakes: representation in Congress & our fair share of about $800b in federal $. If we’re not counted, we’re invisible. Stand up & #Get Counted NYC #CountMeIn #Census2020,” Bagga warned more than a year ago.

This Aug. 3, 2020, when the Census Bureau announced all collecting of responses online, over the phone or mail, plus door knocking on homes that had not responded would end Sept. 30, Bagga called it a “heinous attack on our democracy and our very lives. To rob us of the money, power, and respect we are rightfully owed — and literally erase us from the books.”

On Aug. 31, 2020, after a concentrated drive to get Census responses in the Big Apple, NYC Census 2020, in a press release, estimates  that as of August 27, the self-response rate is 57.3%, and the nation’s is 64.6%. In 2010, there was approximately a 14 point gap between New York City’s census self-response rate and the nation’s. Currently, in 2020, there is less than an eight-point gap. “A recent study found that New York City’s self-response rate increased the most out of any other city in the United States between May 4, 2020 and August 18, 2020,” the press release said.

Community organizations like SACSS, and leaders like New York State Assembly candidate Jenifer Rajkumar, are responsible for some of that, taking up the slack, reaching out to people in their districts to fill the form at community gatherings and religious venues.

In a bid to raise response rates, various levels of government, particularly New York City, have used innovative methods – from having Holly actor Kal Penn record PSAs (https://www.newsindiatimes.com/hollywood-actor-kal-penn-records-psas-to-help-prevent-under-count-of-south-asians-in-2020-census/)  to prevent an under count of Indian and South Asian immigrants, to offering a ‘Census Subway Series’ competition with prizes from lucky draws for those who send back the email receipt from Census.gov confirming they had filled the form (https://www.newsindiatimes.com/nyc-census-2020-announces-next-census-subway-series-competition/), going back as far as January this year when the largest Census outreach training of Asian-American communities took place in New York City, to prepare for when the count started in April.

Staff and volunteers of the South Asian Council for Social Services in Queens, getting members of the community to fill Census 2020 forms during their food drives. (Photo: courtesy SACSS)

The SACSS has a significant outreach, notes Acharya. It reaches 1,000 families in its food distribution drive– 700 in its curbside food pickup, 200 who get groceries delivered, and another 100 who get cooked meals. It would be a major breakthrough if members of those 1,000 families filled up the Census 2020 forms.

“Our distribution network has become a godsend for the Census 2020,” Acharya told Desi Talk. “Both New York City and federal level people put their tables at our curbside distribution for reaching out to people. People are filling out forms right there. And even when they come to pick up groceries, we have a table for Census 2020.”

Jenifer Rajkumar, whose election to the New York State Assembly from Queens, is almost assured come Nov. 3, 2020, has been visiting local gurdwaras to encourage community members to fill out Census forms.

“We’ve had many pushes, many drives already,” Rajkumar told Desi Talk. “My interest in it is because it is my neighborhood. South Queens is undercounted, and my election is a sign of that. This is the community I represent,” she said.

Jenifer Rajkumar, candidate for the NY State Assembly speaking at a gurdwara in Queens Aug. 23, 2020. Photo Twitter Jenifer Rajkumar

Rajkumar sits outside the gurdwara and at mosques, “And every time people stop by, they fill up the Census form,” he said. She also met with leaders of the community and addressed them about the impact of not being counted.

On Aug. 23, Rajkumar tweeted, “We had an amazing & energetic Census Drive today at the 114th Street Gurdwara in my district! #WeWillBeCounted #PunjabiPower #RepresentationMatters #RichmondHill #TheNewQueens”

That meeting was organized by the South Asian American Voters Association (SAAVA).

Acharya’s staff and volunteers at SACSS, go beyond just the food drives. They go to pantries, churches, mosques, libraries to distribute forms. This Aug. 29, they had a rally in front of the Flushing library for the sign-ups. “Our people are everywhere,” she says proudly.

“Queens is catching up with the other boroughs,” Acharya said in terms of the Census 2020 response rate and now stands at 57 percent.

Chhaya Community Development Corporation, which is focused on helping immigrants of the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities, along with SACSS, and other social service organizations have been taking part in meetings hosted by New York City, as has ethnic media, to double down on the Census 2020 drive since Washington brought forward the deadline for Census 2020 forms from Oct. 31, 2020 to September 30, a full month short.

Chhaya is very active in Richmond Hill and South Jamaica neighborhoods while SACSS is active in Flushing and Jamaica. At one point according to news reports, Richmond Hill had a Census 2020 response rate of 44 percent, and Queens as a whole of 53 percent.

So when Acharya says Queens county is now showing a response rate of 57 percent, that 4 percent gain is a tough-to-get number. There’s one month left to take it higher and these organizations are not giving up.

I returned from the Flushing Rally and La Jornada food pantry,” on Aug. 29, 2020, recounted Varsha Mathrani, who was at the Asian outreach week’s final rally in an email, adding, “The line really loops around blocks and blocks from College Point Blvd./The Bland Houses, NYCHA buildings, 40th Rd., Main St., 41st Ave., but they are organized with a system of taking a certain # of clients at a time in a single line.” Mathrani, who has a Masters in Public Health, from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, grew up in Flushing, N.Y., lives there currently, and volunteers with local community organizations.

The Numbers

Nationally, four out of 10 U.S. households have not filled out the census, according to US Census. In other words, the response rate is less than 65%. For Asian Americans the percentage is worse, including for some concentrations of South Asians.

While the taking of the census is mandated by the United States Constitution and has occurred every 10 years since 1790, it is so much more than just a count, notes the NYC.gov website on Census 2020. For instance, for New York City alone, the Census information is used to determine its fair share of billions of dollars in federal funds for public education, affordable housing, infrastructure, and more, as well as the number of seats it has in Congress.

In the 2010 Census, the city’s self-response rate was less than 62%, compared to the national average of 76%, notes NYC.gov.

Flyer of South Asian American Voters Association announcing Census 2020 drive event photo Jenifer Rajkumar Twitter

Scramble To Be Counted

More than 30 organizations and 20 ‘influencers’ committed to mobilizing their communities during the 2020 Census Asian Week of Action, which took place, Aug. 24 to 30. But the drive for a “complete count” goes on.

These organizations, including civic engagement groups, social service providers, and e-commerce brands, are urging people to respond to the census because so much is at stake. Due to COVID-19, it has become more challenging to conduct local outreach, but these 2020 Census partner organizations and influencers are helping to fill the gap, officials said in a press release.

They are using their ‘circles of influence’ to get a more complete count. It’s a key reason why the U.S. Census Bureau has decided to call upon them for the 2020 Census Asian Week of Action, the press release said.

Those helping with the push, like Chhaya and SACSS, specialize in working with the hardest-to-count populations, such as people with proficiency in different languages, young people who move often, babies and young children, and the 50+ population.

With the impact of COVID-19, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in an Aug. 14 statement: “We are taking steps and adapting our operations to make sure everyone is counted, while keeping everyone safe.”

As part of their operational adjustments, the Census Bureau is sending out census takers to help households complete their questionnaires. Census takers have been trained to follow public health guidelines and wear personal protective equipment (PPE) while making these in-person visits.

Dillingham stressed the urgency: “If you haven’t responded, the time to respond is now! Responding to the 2020 Census online, on paper, by phone, or in person with a census taker, helps secure vital resources for your community.”

The Asian Indian community is in danger of not getting its fair share of resources over the next decade and there is only one month left to make an impact, say organizers of the drive at NYC Census 2020.

If people are undercounted, states could lose thousands of dollars in public funding per person every year for emergency services, education, health facilities, road improvements, and other benefits, local and state activists and governments warn.

The community is also at risk of losing political representation, including Congressional seats.

“The future of the Asian American community starts right now. Don’t wait any longer,” said a recent press release from those involved in the outreach.

To respond online, visit 2020census.gov. To respond in English (for 50 states and Washington, D.C.) by phone, call 844-330-2020.

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