Op-Ed: Cuomo's expensive misstep: He's not investing today in ensuring a full Census count for 2020

When Amazon announced they were pulling their new HQ2 from New York, taking with it the promise of billions of dollars in new revenue, many in the state Assembly celebrated while Gov. Cuomo railed on Twitter.

But in the midst of this blame game, a new $50 billion dollar windfall is being almost entirely ignored by the same New York state officials.

The United States Census is the ultimate national competition for resources and representation. But without a single dollar of the $40 million needed for community-based Census outreach earmarked or delivered by Gov. Cuomo and our leaders in Albany, we’re facing the increasing certainty that we will be undercounted, underfunded and underrepresented for the next decade.

As the largest county in the state, Brooklyn is critical to New York’s collective success in the Census. Yet in the 2010 Census, Brooklyn had the lowest mail return rate of any county in the United States with a population over 500,000 people, and more than a third of households didn’t mail in their Census form. By the end, Brooklyn was the “hardest-to-count” in the state of New York, a devastating loss and shocking embarrassment to the elected officials who held the purse strings at the time. This undercounting resulted in a loss of millions of federal dollars and contributed to the loss of two congressional seats that could have been retained had Brooklyn’s population growth, which offset population loss in other parts of the state, had been fully counted.

With New York’s current appropriation of $0, we are on track for a repeat in 2020. By comparison, California recently appropriated $90.3 million to its Census program — at least $28 million of which is directed to community organizations for local and statewide outreach.
Census outreach must be fully funded now to make sure communities have the resources and infrastructure in place to tackle the hard-to-count places. Almost 40% of Brooklyn residents are foreign-born immigrants and they speak more than a dozen different languages. The borough is also home to the largest black and Latino populations of any city in the United States. Each of these groups on their own, much less together, are historically undercounted in the Census nationally. In parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, fewer than 50% of households mailed back their 2010 Census form.
But challenges don’t have to become failures.

When a January Quinnipiac poll asked whether hearing from a local nonprofit organization that works in your community would make a difference in whether or not they choose to participate in the Census, 51% of Brooklynites said yes. These local nonprofits scored higher than newspapers, social media or even religious leaders as drivers of Census participation. And perhaps most critically, younger residents (18-34) — a group that tends to be the least likely to complete the Census survey — indicated the greatest trust in nonprofits as Census messengers.

Dozens of trusted local organizations like the Center for Law and Social Justice are ready to bridge the divide and make sure hard-to-count communities in Brooklyn are counted and billions in federal dollars are delivered at the level needed to fund public education, health care, social services and other federal programs. But they cannot set up the infrastructure to make it happen because politicians in Albany fail to do their jobs.

Brooklyn Community Foundation and others in philanthropy are doing our part to fill the funding void. Last year, our organization alone deployed $100,000 of our community-raised funds to local groups to prepare for the Census and launched the #MakeBrooklynCount campaign in partnership with the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President. With deep, existing relationships with the nonprofit community, community foundations like ours can help connect state funding to those local leaders and groups who can make the 2020 Census a historic success. We can move quickly, but the governor and state legislature must act first.

Clarke is president and CEO of the Brooklyn Community Foundation.