It pays to be counted

HUDSON–While officials voiced concern about undercounting and optimism about on-line census forms, local residents worried about privacy at a briefing here last week on the 2020 Census.

“The census is probably one of the most important issues you can put the same energy into as you put into political campaigns,” state Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) said. “My sense is that money has not been allocated to the 2020 Census yet, and the amount allocated will be less than ever.”

“We have only one opportunity to get this data right, and then we’re stuck with it for 10 years,” said Liz Burakowski, deputy regional director for the state. She said that the national census “is one of the few cases where each person is counted as one person. The idea of being counted as one person no matter how you identify yourself is important these days.”

Ms. Burakowski reiterated the importance of the census in federal funding decisions, political boundaries (from legislative districts to city wards), and the Electoral College.

“It’s never too soon to start a committee for a complete census count, but at one time it will be too late,” said Linda Berk, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Partnership Specialist for New York.

All speakers mentioned groups subject to undercounting, including “people of color,” “people in poverty,” the elderly, children under 5, children who live half-time with each parent, people who do not speak English well, people with uncertain immigration status, people with uncertain housing status, and rural communities. “Upstate New York is going to be a challenge,” said Ms. Berk.

“We have a government that seems to want to undercount. Some places are undercounted and know it. Others are undercounted and don’t know it,” said Assemblymember Barrett.

“For every person who goes uncounted, the state loses $2,600 a year. We’re very worried about the Trump administration,” said Ms. Burakowski.

Challenges include both the mobility of families and distrust of the government, Ms. Berk said.

Meanwhile, for the first time, the U.S. Census will have an online option, and the speakers anticipated that most responses will be online. “You do it yourself. You don’t have an enumerator,” said Ms. Berk.

“Great idea, but some people don’t have internet access,” said Ms. Burakowski.

“Not everybody has a computer at home,” Ms. Barrett acknowledged. Therefore, Ms. Barrett and Ms. Berk said, libraries are going to play a very important role, because of their computers. Ms. Burakowski said another possible obstacle to 100% online response is “worry about cybersecurity.”

“If you don’t do it on the internet, we’ll come knocking on your door,” admitted Ms. Berk. “But that’s costly. The more of you who do it on the internet, the more money goes back into the community.”

The online form will allow you to skip questions, but if you answer too few, your response might be considered incomplete and you might still get a personal visit, cautioned Ms. Burakowski. Still, “nobody’s coming to your house, unless there’s been an attempt to contact you online,” said Ms. Berk.

William Hughes of Hudson noted that people fear eviction if a census taker discovers, even inadvertently, that more people are living in their subsidized apartment than the lease says.

Hudson Alderman Tiffany Garriga (2nd Ward) alluded to census takers discovering that a housing unit includes undocumented immigrants. “When there’s someone knocking on the door, I want to protect the people in my house.”

“A lot of people are concerned that what they say will be shared.” said Ms. Berk. But Title 13 of the U.S. Code forbids census enumerators to share any personal information they might discover; they take oaths not to do so, and federal courts have upheld the statute.

“We just want to know how many people are there and their ages,” said Ms. Berk. “We just want people counted. We don’t care if you have six families living in two rooms. The Citizenship and Immigration Service doesn’t know what we do. People tell more things to their cellphones than to us.”

The Citizenship and Immigration Service is an agency of the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Ms. Garriga asked whether, when coming to people’s door, census takers “leave something that shows the person is under oath” not to report personal information.

“The person is supposed to show federal ID,” said Ms. Burakowski. “And the bureau keeps track of which enumerator goes to which address.”

One man who asked about counting the homeless was told, “On one night, we count every person living in facilities for the homeless en masse.”

Mr. Hughes asked about the citizenship question that the Trump administration wants added to the form. Ms. Burakowski said that the attorney general and Supreme Court were involved with this.

People suggested census kiosks at barber shops, banks, pharmacies, supermarkets and workplaces.

“What about second home residents?” asked Mr. Hughes.

“They have to think about where they really reside,” said Ms. Burakowski.

Somebody reported, “Some people will ask: What’s in this for me?”

“Some people say: ‘I’m not going to help you with the demise of my community.’ But it’s good for your community to be counted,” said Ms. Berk.

“The best way to get people to be willing to speak to enumerators is to get enumerators from the community,” said a man in the audience.

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