NYC to ‘Light a Fire’ for a Complete Census Count

Julie Menin, recently named director of the Census for NYC, addressing community and ethnic media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak)

Asserting that there is “almost no program” of vital services offered in New York City that is not in some way affected by the count of residents that will be taken in the 2020 Census, Julie Menin, the city’s recently-named “Census Czar,” told a briefing for community and ethnic journalists at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism that the city will “go to the mat” to ensure that a complete and accurate count is made.

“We plan to, like my kids say, ‘light a fire,'” said Menin. “This is just so important.” During the 2010 Census, only 61.9 percent of New Yorkers returned their completed census forms – and some neighborhoods had a considerably poorer showing – compared with the nationwide average of 76 percent. Menin, who was chair of Community Board 1 downtown during the 2010 Census, said that “at that time, there was no one from the city government or state government or the federal government who ever came to us and said, ‘If you don’t take the five minutes to fill out this form, did you know that funding for your local public school or your local senior center could be cut?’ No one ever delivered that message.”

Instead, she said, the federal government said that it was the law, and that it was people’s civic duty to be counted.

“That is not the most compelling message in my humble opinion,” said Menin. “We need to instead get the message out that New York must respond to this because we cannot have an undercount.” The city can’t afford to “leave millions of dollars on the table for vital services…basically you’re just letting other jurisdictions have money that rightfully belongs to New York City. We are not going to do that again,” she insisted.

Data: NYC Department of City Planning (DCP)

To ensure high response rates, the city is aiming to partner with libraries, create pop-up census centers and blanket the city and its media, including the ethnic media, with messaging in many languages to highlight the importance to the city of securing a fair and accurate count of its residents. Other initiatives are in the works, Menin said, and will be shared at a later date. “We’re looking at creative ways to get neighborhoods engaged by the census,” she said.

The proposed inclusion on the census questionnaire of a question about citizenship – for the first time in 70 years – is one factor complicating the response rate. The city joined several other jurisdictions in suing the federal government over the question, and won in district court. The appeal is going straight to the Supreme Court, where oral arguments will be heard in April and a decision is likely by June, because that’s when the Census Bureau must begin to print forms. Even if that suit is lost, Menin said that the city will drive home the point that title 13 of the U.S. code protects the confidentiality of people’s responses. Title 13 states that a federal census employee cannot share census data and if they were to share it, they would be subject to up to five years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine – and that is a lifetime ban, which means that an individual would be subject to prosecution and being fined if they revealed information after leaving government. What’s more, she said, that also prohibits sharing across agencies.

Also changing the outlook this time around is the fact that this will be the first census that is designed to elicit mostly online responses. The federal government will be sending mailers in March of 2020 with a code that heads of households can use to enter their response on a computer. They may also file by telephone, and some people will be receiving a mailing that contains a hard copy of the actual questionnaire and they can mail their responses in. If there is no response, there will be repeated mailings sent, then finally an enumerator will be sent to the address in an attempt to get an in-person response. Menin noted that the new response methods will allow the city to have daily updates on the census response, but she noted that not everyone can respond this way. And she emphasized that it’s far better not to face a stranger knocking at one’s door, which could result, she said, in less reliable responses.

Menin’s own office is building a team of about 50 people, the majority of whom will be community organizers with deep  experience in their communities, while the federal government is hiring managers to be paid up to $100,000 a year, and she said “we are now recommending people to them,” so that those jobs go to New Yorkers who know their communities. The federal government will also be hiring 22,000 enumerators, who will be paid $25 an hour. Job listings are slated to begin for enumerators this summer and the first ones will be hired in the fall. The city and federal government will partner on job fairs.

Menin fielded numerous questions about the citizenship question, and called it “a blatant attempt to suppress the response rate in immigrant communities and communities of color across the city.” She called the federal government’s stance “an attempt to defund cities, not just New York City, cities that have high immigrant populations, and to switch the funding to red states.”

As the daughter of an immigrant mother who came here as a Holocaust survivor, Menin said, she’s troubled by the message this sends to immigrant communities that they don’t count. “This is a war on immigrants,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important that the city have a concerted issue to fight back against this.”

She also said that it would be a felony for the city to suggest that people boycott answering any question on the census. She noted, however, that people are free to answer whatever questions they want to answer. She said that skipping one question would not invalidate the form, although skipping three or four questions, would mean the form is incomplete and would likely result in an enumerator knocking at your door. For instance, she said, if someone was not comfortable answering the gender question, they might skip that, and that is “their prerogative.”

On other points, Menin noted that the census for the first time recognizes same-sex households.

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  1. Pingback: Center for Community and Ethnic Media – Newsmakers: Julie Menin on NYC’s Strategy for 2020 Census

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