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Pandemic having significant effect on 2020 census; NY has $880B at stake

Noelle E. C. Evans / WXXI News

The U.S. census, that constitutionally mandated once-a-decade count of every resident, is still being conducted this year -- though it’s not going according to plan.

Jim Malatras with the New York State Complete Count Commission said the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected what was already a difficult year for the 2020 census. 

He said he doesn’t believe that the federal government had done enough before the pandemic to ensure an accurate count, particularly in states with large immigrant populations and communities of color, like New York. 

“I think now more than ever with this coronavirus pandemic put on top of it, I think it becomes even more stark about how they haven’t really put the time or resources into ensuring that every state is counting every resident in their state,” Malatras said.

While many people are struggling with layoffs and stay-at-home orders, Malatras said taking five minutes to complete the census questionnaire online, by phone or by mail can help determine how the New York state economy recovers from the pandemic.

“It’s really important to make sure we’re getting the resources that we need in New York state in order to really bring this state back and our economy back after this situation has ended,” he said.

For New Yorkers, federal funding and congressional representation is at stake.

If there is an undercount in the 2020 census, Malatras said that New York state could lose up to two seats in Congress. Also, $880 billion in federal funding for education, transportation infrastructure, and health care could be jeopardized.

That’s because if people don't respond to a census, it appears that there are fewer residents in an area, so less funding and political representation would be needed.

“If you have 100 kids in a classroom and you only count 75, you’re only getting money for 75 (students) from the federal government, but you’re still paying for those 100 students,” Malatras said.

Earlier this year, Malatras said that those undercounted areas are often home to historically marginalized groups.

“Communities of color have been undercounted historically. Native Americans, certain immigrant groups, certain religious groups, things like that," Malatras said. "So it’s really incumbent upon us to make sure everyone fills out their form so we know specifically and we can verify the accuracy of the count.”

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said at a census-related event at Monroe Community College in February that those who would benefit most from federal aid also tend to be those least likely to respond to a census.

“Unfortunately, some of the hardest to count populations are also those that are going to be the most impacted by an undercount of the population,” Bello said.

About 1,900 of 4,900 communities in New York are hard to count, said Malatras, meaning that there is a low self-response rate. So, census workers have to knock on doors and ask those households to fill out a census form. With the outbreak of COVID-19, those efforts have been delayed.

Credit US Census Bureau/Facebook

U.S. Census data shows that New York state currently leads the nation in population decline. From 2018 to last year, the population dropped by 76 thousand people. 

To ensure an accurate count, the state has put forth about $60 million for census outreach. This is also the first time people will be able to participate in the census online.

Malatras said there had already been hurdles to getting a complete count of the state’s populace before the COVID-19 outbreak. A question about citizenship that had been included in the census had cast a “chilling effect” in some communities, but that question has since been removed.

“I think the citizenship question was a way to weaponize the census like it hasn’t been weaponized in the past in order to actually get people to not fill out the forms,” Malatras said.

The citizenship question was challenged by the state of California and others. The Supreme Court ruled that the question could not be included because there was insufficient justification. The federal government dropped the question. The last time a citizenship question was included in the census was 1950.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.
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