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Critics say state report on 2020 census preparation is too little, too late


A state commission to oversee the 2020 census count for New York state adopted its action plan Tuesday. But immigrant rights groups worry that it’s too little, too late.

The commission gave unanimous approval to a plan that includes directing resources to “hard to count” communities, estimated to contain at least 4.8 million people. Many are in the African American and Latinx communities. There’s also concern that since the census will for the first time be conducted mostly online, predominately white rural New Yorkers with poor Internet access may also be missed.

Jim Malatras, commission chair and former director of state operations under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said there’s a lot at stake, including federal funds for health care programs, food stamps and school lunches for the needy.

“If you have 100 students, but you only count 75 in a census, you’re still paying for 100 students,” said Malatras, who is currently president of SUNY’s Empire State College. “You’re just not getting funding for 100 students any longer.”

The census is also used to allot political representation. New York’s overall population is growing at a slower rate than other states, and it already stands to lose two congressional seats.

Malatras said concerns include an underfunded federal census bureau. There also was publicity over President Donald Trump’s administration’s unsuccessful attempt to include a citizenship question on the census.

“There’s a chilling effect to that. Some people think it’s still there,” Malatras said. “And that may lead to them not actually filling out the census.”

Malatras said the commission wants to work with community groups, unions and state agencies to counteract that.

The plan was issued several months after its deadline. Under a state law approved by the Legislature and signed by Cuomo in March 2018, the commission was to have completed its report on funding needed for the census count by January. But the commissioners were not appointed until January, and the first of the two reports due in July was released Tuesday.

Malatras said although there is a lot to do, he’s confident the state will be ready when the count begins early next year. He said some of the reports’ recommendations, like having a robust marketing campaign for the census, can’t be carried out until next year anyway.

“T here’s plenty of time to do things,” he said.

But immigrants rights groups say the delay has been harmful. Meeta Anand is with the New York Immigration Coalition.

“To say that they are on target by issuing it on Oct. 8 is incorrect,” Anand said.

Anand said immigrants’ rights groups wanted $40 million to pay for programs and staff to help convince people in undercounted communities that it is in their interest to complete the census. But they say only $20 million is included.

Members of a census funding coalition New York Counts 2020 attend Tuesday's meeting in Albany. From left, Tara Feeney, ONA immigrant community navigator, Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council; Amy Torres with the Chinese-American Planning Council; and Meeta Anand with the New York Immigration Coalition.

Some commissioners also expressed concerns about the delays and the funding amounts, including Jose Calderon, president of the Hispanic Federation.

“It’s important to release this money as quickly as possible because the reality is we are delayed in that process,” said Calderon, who was appointed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Esmeralda Simmons with the Center for Law & Social Justice at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College, also a Heastie appointee, pressed for the commission to more clearly spell out the exact mechanisms for getting everything done in time, and whether requests for proposals would be required.

Amy Torres with the Chinese-American Planning Council said the commissioners' continued “hemming and hawing over what the right amount of money is, how it should go out” at this late date has caused her group to question Cuomo’s commitment to an effective and accurate count.

“It further shows that the governor is not truly interested in supporting a full and complete count of New York state,” Torres said.

Rich Azzopardi, senior adviser to Cuomo, said there hasn't been any foot-dragging.

“That’s 100% incorrect,” said Azzopardi, who added that the governor is committed to ensuring every “man, woman and child” is properly counted, and that the census is not a “backdoor invitation” to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“We’ve been all over that for the last several years,” he said.

The count begins April 1 and will continue through the summer.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.