Less than 200 words into the Constitution, before any mention of the president, the Supreme Court, or freedom of speech, comes the instruction to count everyone living in the United States. The specifics are calamitously racist, since the text pointedly excludes “Indians not taxed” and calculates slaves as “three-fifths of all other persons,” a reckoning that helped prepare the way for the Civil War. But the weight of the language is clear: There is power in numbers, specifically political power that rests on “actual Enumeration,” the laborious listing of each individual, every ten years.
Counting the members of every household in the nation was a complicated task in the 1780s, involving muddy tracks and tired horses. It’s even more challenging in 2020, when the country has been hit with a triple whammy of obstacles: an executive branch hostile to the idea of accurate data, a multipronged campaign by the Trump administration to expel and erase immigrants, and a pandemic that has scattered people and thrown virtually every bureaucracy into disarray. More than halfway through the year, we find ourselves in a census emergency. A collision of circumstances threatens to throw off the count, and while inaccuracy can damage the nation, it poses a special danger to New York.
“This is a nationwide competition for resources,” says Julie Menin, the director of NYC Census 2020. The census defines how congressional districts are mapped, but it’s also a scramble for money. “For every New Yorker who doesn’t fill out the form, those resources go to other states, usually red states.” Federal tax dollars for transit, schools, sewers, housing, unemployment insurance, and so on — more than $1.5 trillion in all — are divided up by population. In our age of data, the census also forms the basis of innumerable other calculations: how many doses of a future coronavirus vaccine to ship, for example.
That’s why, just before the COVID crisis hit, the city was ready with an army of 157 community groups poised for action, a multimillion-dollar subway ad campaign, and 300 pop-up census centers. All of that got put on ice. Some New Yorkers fled to second homes, where they may have forgotten to fill out the online form, or erroneously listed their out-of-town addresses. (There’s still time to correct!) This has led the city’s wealthiest Zip Codes, including parts of the Upper East Side, Soho, Tribeca, and midtown, to trail the pack in self-reporting. Those who remained were hunkered down, and if a census mailer did make it through erratic postal delivery, it was easy to miss amid the misery and grief. The result is that just 53.2 percent of New Yorkers had answered the questionnaires by the second week in July, far short of the equivalent in 2010 and nearly 9 percent below the already depressed response rate in the nation as a whole.
Across the city, there are enormous variations in the rates at which even adjacent neighborhoods respond, and the factors are not always obvious. Public-housing projects and large apartment complexes like Stuyvesant Town have marshaled tenants with astounding efficiency. Areas with single-family houses have been more diffuse. Neighborhoods dominated by different immigrant groups sometimes react in nearly opposite ways. The heavily Dominican area of Washington Heights has out-responded much of the rest of the city, while Latino neighborhoods in Queens have some of the lowest rates. “The Dominican community is deeply rooted in New York,” says Amit Singh Bagga, NYC Census 2020’s deputy director. “Go over to Central and South American areas of North Corona and East Elmhurst, and you get much lower rates of English proficiency, political education, awareness, and involvement. There are linguistic and cultural barriers, especially when people come from cultures in which positive interactions with government agencies aren’t common.”
The city has launched an all-out campaign to stir all those differences into a global number, mobilizing a network of volunteers and urging speakers of Mixtec, Quechua, Tlapenco, Bangla, and dozens of other languages to embrace a public agency that many have never heard of. Those who have may associate it mostly with the Trump administration’s effort to have the form ask for each respondent’s citizenship, a question widely interpreted as a way to intimidate immigrants. The Supreme Court eventually nixed the question, but the Trump administration is still fighting a rearguard action to control the outcome of the census: The president has issued a policy memorandum excluding undocumented immigrants from the count, leaving it unclear how you’d know someone’s status if you’re barred from asking.
The hostile climate makes in-person outreach that much more crucial. “Folks need to be able to communicate in person with people they trust, who look like them and speak the same dialect they do,” says Bagga. “As soon as you cross a street, you get a completely different response rate, which shows how diverse we are as a city, and it also shows some of the disparities that exist in New York. So this campaign is not just about getting the money, power, and respect we’re constitutionally owed. It’s also an investment in increasing civic and political engagement.”
The coronavirus crisis has also wreaked havoc on the census schedule. The self-response period that was initially scheduled to end in April will now run until October 31. That overlaps with the period, beginning August 11, in which census workers will start going door-to-door to wrangle those who haven’t answered — a chancy proposition at the best of times and potentially hazardous during a pandemic.
“The challenge is that people won’t open their door, or that people won’t spend the time with the enumerator, or won’t want to give out private information,” says Steven Romalewski, director of the Mapping Service at the CUNY Graduate Center, which has produced a tract-by-tract map of response rates all over the country. If census workers knock and get no answer, they’ll canvass neighbors or the building super, follow up with administrative records like driver’s licenses, and, as a last resort, feed the hitch into a statistical process called imputation. Those who fail to respond are throwing themselves at the mercy of an algorithm, which may or may not figure out they exist.
The data-collection uncertainties come at an inflection point for New York’s population, which grew robustly in the first part of the last decade and stalled in the past few years. Trump’s election choked off the flow of immigrants from abroad, and since foreign-born women give birth to half of New York’s babies, the fertility rate dropped too. Accordingly, so did the average age and the rate of natural increase — the difference between deaths and births. “We’re taking a hit as a result of federal immigration policy,” says the city’s chief demographer, Joseph Salvo, who takes personally the population numbers’ failure to rise. “Am I worried? Yes, I’m worried. And if I weren’t worried, I’d be worried about that.”