November 21 2018

BP Katz Conducts 2020 Census Town Hall

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz’s 2020 Census Town Hall meeting last week was a declaration of concern about the amount of federal funding that might be coming to Queens in the 2020s.  It’s understandable that a political leader should be thus concerned, since federal revenues and the size of a political entity’s population are closely related; but Queens and the rest of the city are additionally of a mind that they are being undercounted and deprived of a rightful share.  While introducing the BP, Borough Vice President Melba Miller said that for Queens “the 2020 census count is more important than ever” because the borough must not suffer a bad count again.  B.P. Katz said she is “committed to having an accurate count in Queens.”

It is the mandate of the United States Constitution, Article 1 Section 2, that a census be taken every 10 years, in the zero year, to count the population and housing of this country and disseminate the results to the president, the states and the people of America; and it has been carried out since 1790.  At the town hall meeting, the first speaker was Jeff T. Behler, in charge of the New York regional office of the Bureau of the Census.

Behler said that the census must be exhaustive, since anything left out of one for any reason can’t be retrieved until the beginning of the next census cycle a decade later.  He said that here in late 2018 the drive begins, with citizens contributing information that will allow the census to produce the best final count possible.  Posting local events, sharing census messaging and providing feedback are all part of community education, all of that being preparatory to the first knocks on doors across the nation, which will occur in May 2020.

Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson of the Strategic Policy Initiative was the next to speak.  He said the ‘”citizen question” that the federal Department of Commerce, parent organization of the Census Bureau, is trying to get installed on 2020 census forms, is just another voter discouragement effort.  He said he is sensitive to that, being the descendant of Virginia slaves and a student of voter suppression in our history.  He said that like Behler he believes the census is safe from being undermined by false procedures and dubious information.  A task of his is to reassure those he talks to—residents in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings, say, and non-citizens—that the information they impart to census takers is safe from investigation by those outside the bureau, which will not disclose private information to them, in adherence to U.S. Code Title 13, which prohibits it.

John Park, executive director of the Minkwon Center and a board member of New York Counts, said the 1790 census was not about citizenship but principally a head and housing count, and the 2020 census is not in need of a citizenship question, which he said represents a challenge to government safety.  He was glad to disclose that there are more than 90 branches of NY Counts throughout the state and that thus far this year more than 20 training and education sessions about the coming census have been conducted.  He said that community activity such as NY Counts also leads to voter registrations that would likely be lost without such effort.

Dr. Joseph Salvo, head of the New York City Department of City Planning’s population division, said that attendees at meetings such as this one are sure to know more about their communities than he knows.  He was there with charts and maps showing such things as components of local population change, 2010-2017.  Change is frequent, he said, and newness is regular, with one ethnic group replacing a previous one.  He was elated to say this, being quite excited about the ethnic variety that Queens and the rest of the city provide.  You don’t get this just anywhere, he said.

Thus far this year, a total of $4 million has been allocated for media spreads.  A question was asked from the audience about consultation with church congregations in neighborhoods where civic enthusiasm is known to be slack.  Thompson said that as the son of a Baptist minister he’ll be sure to be on it.   Salvo spoke of questionnaire consultation “on the ground” to get popular turnout where it might not leverage otherwise.  Thompson said that trained citizens will be better trusted among their own neighbors than would the city officers who trained them.

Testimony to that came from Clive Williams, chairman of Community Board 13, who said he was interviewed by a census worker from the American Community segment of the Census Bureau, in what he said was a negative way.  A later look at the interviewer’s preparation for the interview revealed to Williams that there was little or no contact made with the communities, whether in his district or those of other community boards.  There should be time to repair that situation between now and the time census-taking begins.