Last Tuesday, Borough President Melinda Katz hosted an event at Borough Hall to provide insight into the process and explain the importance of the count every 10 years.
In addition to determining the number of elected representatives in an area, the census also decides how much federal money comes back to the district. Katz said that will affect funding for education, senior centers, housing and more.
“This transcends politics. it’s not about being a Republican or a Democrat,” she said. “This is about the type of life we want for our families that are here.”
She announced the formation of the Queens Complete Count Committee, a group of people who will work to ensure an accurate count of people living in the borough.
Katz alluded to a number of “unprecedented challenges” facing the census, particularly in Queens. For the first time, 80 percent of residents will receive the census form online, which she said raises questions about cybersecurity.
The Commerce Department also added a citizenship question on the form, which the borough president said can affect a borough like Queens, which has nearly half of its population born outside of the United States.
Opponents of the citizenship question, including the de Blasio administration, 18 states and nine cities, have brought a lawsuit against the Commerce Department. The suit is now working its way through the courts.
“It’s ridiculous, it’s not what the census is about,” Katz said. “It’s about the number of people who are actually here.”
Dr. J. Phillip Thompson, deputy mayor of strategic policy initiatives, said this isn’t the first fight the country has had over the census. When the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, Thompson’s ancestors in Virginia, who were slaves, were counted as three-fifths of a person.
“The fight around the census started then,” he said. “There has been fights many times.”
Another fight occurred in the 1960s, when the 1965 Voting Rights Act said “one person, one vote,” instead of “one citizen, one vote.” Thompson said civil rights advocates felt strongly about the wording because they wanted every person to be acknowledged and recognized, not just citizens.
The deputy mayor said the debate over the citizenship question today is “one of these fights.”
“Many of us believe the intent is actually to frighten certain people so that they won’t fill out the census,” he said. “The best way to respond to fear is to organize people together and fight back.
“We’ve got to organize in order to make a statement with this census, that everybody matters, everybody counts,” Thompson added. “That’s the big message.”
Jeff Behler, regional director of the New York Regional Office for the U.S. Census Bureau, said the goal for the 2020 Census is to count everyone once and “in the right place.”
To ease doubts or concerns about the level of safety of sharing personal information, Behler said that the responses are protected by a federal law called Title 13. The bureau cannot release any household data.
The penalty is a fine of up to $250,000 and up to five years in prison.
“Everyone who has ever had access to Census data that’s not public access is sworn for life,” Behler said. “We take that seriously.”
He added that Title 13 has “stood the test of time.” The law has been taken to court many times by other federal agencies, law enforcement agencies and private organizations, all wanting the data.
“They’ve lost every time,” he said.
Behler also stressed that the census is easy to fill out. Anyone can access the form online, through a toll-free telephone line, which can collect information for the first time, on paper or through a visit from a Census employee.
The online and phone response options will be available in 12 non-English languages. Guides will be produced in 59 non-English languages, Behler said.
The hiring of 350,000 to 400,000 census employees to knock on doors nationwide is the most expensive part of the process, he said.
The Census Bureau will soon be opening 13 offices in New York City. They will hire managers, supervisors and clerical staff for these temporary jobs.
Behler said though the census is officially in 2020, all residents must begin to plan today.
“If we miss people, if we don’t get an accurate count in 2020, we’re going to have to wait another 10 years,” he said. “We need your help to do this.”