Op-Ed: Making New Yorkers count: To ensure New York City doesn’t suffer a 2020 Census disaster, get money flowing to community organizations

New York state and city governments have turned the 2020 Census into a slow-moving train with no conductor. Given the major challenges tied to this Census — including the likely inclusion of a citizenship question that recent evidence indicates was explicitly designed to suppress the count in cities with large immigrant communities — we are desperately behind where we should be.

On the national stage the Census is being hotly debated, with the Supreme Court likely to approve the citizenship question, and congress voting yesterday to hold in contempt Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for defying the committee’s subpoena regarding the citizenship question.

What’s worse, there’s little sign that officials in Albany or City Hall are worried about the problems on the ground. The situation is dire: We need our local elected leaders to act fast and mobilize funding for critical Census outreach so that New York State isn’t underfunded (more than $50 billion is on the line) and underrepresented (we may lose up to two congressional seats) for the next decade.

There is, however, an easy solution on how to get this done that has little to do with government and bureaucracy and everything to do with community-based organizations stepping up and leading the way.

Recently, the Mayor’s Office announced a $22 million investment for Census 2020 outreach, education, and activation. This is in addition to the $4 million previously committed in the city’s FY 2019 budget, and on top of the $20 million allocated in the just-finalized state budget.

It all sounds good on paper, until you realize there is no plan for when the money will be allocated or where it will go. While our elected officials may not know what to do, our communities certainly do.

The clearest way forward is for governments to distribute the funding equitably according to “hard to count” populations, prioritizing the top 500 census tracts in New York state that are at-risk for undercount. And New York City is where this funding really counts: nearly half of the hard-to-count tracts are in Brooklyn, a quarter in Queens and 10% in the Bronx.

Next, the city and state need to partner with deeply connected local experts in hard-to-count areas with experience in moving money quickly to frontline nonprofits — like community foundations and nonprofit coalitions. With the funding in place, community-based organizations are well positioned to hit the streets and prepare for the count — work they’ve already started despite the lack of funding.

In 2010, less than 67% of Brooklyn households completed the mailed Census questionnaire (the lowest rate of any large county in the nation). In a poll taken earlier this year, Brooklynites indicated that they are more likely to complete the 2020 Census if they hear from local nonprofits than any other information source, including social media, advertising, and TV.

It’s a no brainer that the funding for Census outreach should go to community-based organizations, yet the 2020 count will surely fail — as it did in 2010 — if we don’t have able, active leadership in Albany and City Hall fighting to move funding to the right places right now.

The barrier here is leadership on an issue that is critically important but isn’t sexy. The fact that over $40 million has been prioritized for Census 2020 is entirely due to the determined advocacy of nonprofits across New York state. And these same organizations have already taken it upon themselves to organize, staff up, and begin to do critical Census preparation work, all without a dime of government funding.

For example, the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College formed a coalition of black-led nonprofits across New York City — in high immigrant areas and in single family households neighborhoods — to drive specific messaging to the historically undercounted black community about the value of the Census to their future.

The New York Immigration Coalition created the New York Counts 2020 coalition of over 100 nonprofits across New York State, which has become one of the strongest and most organized leaders in the Census movement nationwide.

And here in Brooklyn, where the Census stakes are the highest, we at Brooklyn Community Foundation have partnered with Borough President Eric Adams to create the #MakeBrooklynCount campaign and form the Brooklyn Complete Count Committee to coordinate hundreds of local leaders around the Census for the first time in the borough’s history.

The community has stepped up. All we need now are the resources to move forward. But do our elected officials care enough?