“New York City and all of our nation’s cities have for too long suffered undercounts that have denied us political representation and federal resources.” These were the words of Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1996 as the nation geared up for the 2000 census.
“We” are only “the people” if we are counted. This is why the founding fathers enshrined the census in the Constitution.
Population numbers establish our electoral power for federal congressional seats and for state and local representation, and for federal funding. They also determine how much money states get back in federal payments for health care, housing, education and more.
But unless things change, and change quickly, people, many of whom are people of color and marginalized members of society, will be systematically undercounted under President Trump.
Trump’s proposed 2019 budget has $262 million less than the Census Bureau last fall said it needed to properly count Americans — never mind failing to make up for previous spending caps that underfunded it to begin with.
The Republican-controlled Congress in 2014 demanded that the 2020 census cost less than the 2010 census to save money. They even refused to adjust for inflation.
Consequently, the Census Bureau is already behind and relying, in part, on saving money by going digital. The coming census is the first in which most Americans are going to be counted over the internet.
While digital counting might sound good, it has significant challenges. Nationally, only about 57% of black and Latino residents have internet access at home. And people over 65 or with only a high school diploma are more likely to lack home internet service.
Some of these Americans will technically be able to use smartphones to fill out their forms — but there, still, there are serious racial and economic disparities.
The federal government promises it will still mail forms in areas that are digitally deprived. However, we should be concerned about sufficient staffing to help make sure those mail-in forms are submitted.
Already, underfunding the census has meant less testing and review to make sure people understand and respond to the census. Planned Spanish-language testing in Puerto Rico, where many people still lack power, didn’t happen. Testing in rural communities on strategies to increase participation have also been reduced.
The census has become more accurate over the years, but people of color are still more likely to be undercounted. The 2010 count slightly overcounted white, wealthy people, often because they tend to own more than one home and sometimes filled out the forms more than once.
The Census Bureau estimated the overcount at a low 0.01% but estimated that blacks and Latinos were undercounted by 2.1% and 1.5%, respectively. New York City’s mail participation rate improved in 2010 from 2000, but was still only 57%, compared to 71% nationally.
According to the Center for Urban Research at CUNY, New York City has three of the hardest-to-count counties in the U.S. For example, over 25% of Queens residents didn’t return the mail-in questionnaire and required the more difficult and costly in-person followup to be counted.
Making matters still worse for cities with large immigrant populations, the Trump administration — which is aggressively deporting undocumented people — has stoked fears by pushing to include a question about citizenship status. The census has never asked this question in the over 200-year history of the count.
It is arguably a crime, punishable by fine of up to $5,000, to refuse to fill out the census. While the census almost never prosecutes — the last time it did was in 1970 — it is easy to imagine how fear will put undocumented immigrants and their families, not to mention census employees, in an impossible position.
Back when Giuliani decried Washington’s mistreatment of New York, our state sent $9 billion more to the federal government than it got back in support. Today, according to the state controller, the state sends $41 billion more than it gets back. It’ll only get worse if the 2020 census doesn’t correct course now.
Wiley is senior vice president for social justice and the Henry Cohen professor of urban policy and management at the New School.