July 24 2019


NYC Comptroller Stringer: "We can’t allow the digital divide to contribute to the President’s heinous efforts to undercount communities of color and compromise the Census.”
Photo: Susan Watts, Comptroller’s office

July 24, 2019

As the Trump Administration abandons their quest to include a citizenship question in the country’s first-ever digital Census, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer released an alarming new report, “Census and the City: Overcoming NYC’s Digital Divide in the 2020 Census,” which spotlights how lack of internet access in low-income areas in New York City risks amplifying the Administration’s goal to corrupt an accurate count.

In addition to the President’s explicit objective of scaring immigrants into the shadows through the citizenship question, which has now been blocked in Federal court, the Administration’s underfunding of the Census Bureau and lack of investment in outreach and Census testing only serve to heighten the potential harm caused by lack of internet access on the Census count. The Comptroller’s report warns that without concrete steps to fill the digital gap, New Yorkers stand at risk of being undercounted, which will only exacerbate the impact of the President’s efforts to undermine the Census. At stake for New York City is close to $6 billion in annual federal aid tied to the Census that flows into the City’s Budget, impacting everything from school lunches, to winter heating assistance for low income New Yorkers and early childhood education funding.

“When it comes to the Census, the Trump Administration has pursued an all-out assault on non-White communities in a paper-thin effort to intimidate immigrants into invisibility. They’ve failed but we can’t allow the digital divide to contribute to the President’s heinous efforts to undercount communities of color and compromise the Census,” said New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. “A complete and accurate count is essential for New Yorkers to receive the resources they need – for many residents, programs that are lifelines are in jeopardy. Data is power, which is why duplicitous forces are intently focused on using the count to hold back marginalized communities. We have to do everything in our power to ensure they fail. The Census comes once every ten years – and we get one chance to get it right. Let’s ensure digital access doesn’t end up being an obstacle to a full Census count.”

“The Census is one of the most important issues we face as we head into 2020 and determines both our representation in Congress and funding for important projects across the country,” said Congressmember Adriano Espaillat. “All voices matter and should be counted, and we are standing together to ensure that our city, our community, and our families have a say and that their voices are reported accurately.”

“Comptroller Scott Stringer’s new report today shows the digital divide across our city runs deep,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos. “This report shows that targeted outreach is absolutely necessary to ensure that we get a full, accurate count in the 2020 Census. We must work to ensure that our immigrant and low-income communities know the census is happening, understand the importance of being counted, and are being counted so that they receive the resources and representation they need.”

“The digital divide already limits our city’s true potential, and a census undercount would make things worse,” said Melva Miller, Executive Vice President of the ABNY’s census effort. “We can’t let that happen – the stakes for New York are too high. With big changes coming to how census data is collected, ABNY looks forward to working with Comptroller Stringer and other partners to ensure that no New Yorker slips through the cracks.”

“With more than 55,000 Asian-led households in New York City without any internet access, we must ensure that all New Yorkers know about all ways to participate in the first digital Census,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, Executive Director, Asian American Federation. “Besides building alternative forms of internet access at libraries and community centers, for instance, we also must let people know that they have the choice to request paper forms or to respond by phone.”

“Muslim New Yorkers are seriously concerned that the 2020 census will undercount our communities. One in five Muslim Americans live in New York and an undercount in New York will impact the entire Muslim American community. 64% of Muslim Americans are immigrants, many have limited literacy in English as well as their own language, and many have not completed high school and live under the federal poverty limit. These factors are further complicated by Federal policies that negatively target immigrants – including the Muslim ban and the Citizenship question – which have led to a fear and skepticism of registry. Insufficient resources for the 2020 Census to bridge the digital divide will jeopardize communities’ capacity to support a fair and accurate Census,” said Ahsia Badi, New York Census Director, Emgage.

“For the first time ever, households will receive an invitation in the mail to fill out the 2020 Census online. For limited English proficient individuals, how many will be able to read that invitation? Even if they are able to get online to the correct website, the online Census forms are only available in 13 languages,” said John Park, Executive Director, MinKwon Center for Community Action. “We live in a City where hundreds of languages are spoken every day. And Queens, where the MinKwon Center is based, is considered the language capital of the world. Compounded by the constant assault on immigrants from the Trump administration including mass ICE raids targeting cities like ours, New York faces significant challenges for avoiding another undercount.”

“For the first time in history, the 2020 Census will be conducted online, a transition that may seriously depress self-response rates, deepen New York’s digital divide, and deprive New Yorkers of the federal resources and political representation we deserve. While moving towards a digital Census may seem convenient on the surface, it’s likely to render invisible many marginalized and hard-to-count communities such as the hundreds of thousands of households across our city that lack reliable access to the internet and our immigrant neighbors who remain fearful of any interactions with federal agencies. With adequate resources, community-based organization, who have the trust and expertise to conduct grassroots outreach activities, can be the frontline defenders of our democracy to ensure all New Yorkers are counted,” said Steve Choi, Executive Director, New York Immigration Coalition and coordinator of New York Counts 2020.

“The Census only comes around once every ten years and we have to do everything in our power to ensure our communities are counted and get this right. As an organization that serves the Arab and/or Muslim community, we know we are already undercounted by not having a MENA category in the census. Digitizing the Census makes it even harder to get our community accurately counted,” said Marwa Janini, Interim Executive Director, Arab American Association of New York. “I applaud Comptroller Stringer for his attention and advocacy to this under-explored critical issue in the Census count – the lack of internet access in marginalized communities. Together we must marshal all resources at our disposal to reach vulnerable populations and make sure every New Yorker is counted.”

“While moving the census to a digital format expands reach to certain groups, our community members, who are some of the most undercounted populations in the Census year after year, would be negatively affected by a complete abandonment of hardcopy Census forms. As organizers, we know that having facetime and hardcopy materials allows us to reach more of our community members and instill more trust in the people were are working with. We encourage the Census to show that they prioritize Black, African, and immigrant communities and provide hard copies to impacted communities to ensure that all of us are being counted,” said Amaha Kassa, Executive Director, African Communities Together.

“Kudos to Comptroller Stringer for focusing the city’s attention on the potential challenges of the digital Census. He’s right that city officials need to start planning for this and providing resources to the libraries and community based organizations that are best positioned to help boost participation for New Yorkers who lack a home computer or internet connection,” said Jonathan Bowles, Executive Director, Center for an Urban Future.

The most critical determinant of successfully completing a digital 2020 Census survey is access to high-speed broadband internet at home. Households who do not receive a paper form and do not have easy access to broadband internet will be forced to fill out the 2020 Census using a mobile device, a public internet-connected computer, or dial-up internet – and are less likely to fill out the form at all. Broadband internet includes cable, fiber optic, or DSL service and usually involves a modem which provides a wired connection or wireless signal.

Comptroller Stringer’s report shows that even in 2019, internet access is not equally shared across New York City communities. If the upcoming Census effort and transition to a digital Census fail to dedicate appropriate resources to reaching those without an internet connection, vast pockets of New Yorkers could go uncounted.

The Digital Divide Threatens an Accurate Census Count

· The Comptroller’s analysis found that internet disparities are pervasive throughout New York City. Across the five boroughs, 29 percent of households – 917,239 in total – lack broadband internet access.

· In many communities, more than one-third of households do not have internet access, among them Chinatown & Lower East Side (50 percent without broadband internet access), Hunts Point, Longwood & Melrose (48 percent), Borough Park, Kensington & Ocean Parkway (46 percent), Morris Heights, Fordham South & Mount Hope (44 percent), Belmont, Crotona Park East & East Tremont (43 percent), and Jamaica, Hollis & St. Albans (43 percent).

· 17 city neighborhoods (out of 55) have a higher than average share of households without broadband internet access and recorded a lower than average response rate to the 2010 Census.

· Among households lacking broadband internet access, roughly 352,000 households pay for a cellular data plan for a smartphone or other mobile device. While these households will be able to complete the 2020 Census on their mobile device, past research on mobile Census surveys suggests that they will likely experience more difficulties in successfully completing the survey. In part due to longer loading times and more scrolling, mobile device respondents to previous Census surveys have experienced longer completion times and higher rates of starting but not completing the survey.

Marginalized Communities Most Impacted

· The Comptroller’s report also found that Internet disparities track closely to socioeconomic factors like poverty and are most apparent in traditionally marginalized communities. 44 percent of New Yorkers in poverty lack broadband internet access, as opposed to 22 percent above the poverty line.

· 36 percent of New Yorkers outside of the labor force lack a broadband internet connection, versus 20 percent for employed New Yorkers.

· About 30 percent of Hispanic and Black New Yorkers, respectively, lack broadband internet access, compared to 20 percent of White New Yorkers and 22 percent of Asian residents.

· Seniors are much more likely to be without a broadband internet connection compared to the general population. Forty two percent of New Yorkers 65 and above lacked broadband internet access, compared to 23 percent of 18 to 24 year olds.

· New Yorkers with lower educational attainment are much more likely to lack broadband internet access. Forty one percent of New Yorkers without a high school degree lack a broadband internet connection, compared to only 15 percent of New Yorkers with college degrees.

To address these glaring disparities in internet access and prevent the potentially harmful impact on Census response rates, Comptroller Stringer urged a comprehensive effort at every level of government and demanded that the Census Bureau use this information to prioritize distribution of paper forms to communities at risk of undercount. Comptroller Stringer’s recommendations include:

1. Send paper forms to communities with low rates of broadband internet connectivity. The Census Bureau has committed to providing paper forms to approximately 20 percent of the nation’s population, although federal officials have yet to specify where those forms will be distributed. New York City communities with low rates of broadband internet access should be prioritized for the distribution of paper forms.

2. Ensure that community based organizations, libraries, and other groups are adequately resourced for the unique challenges of a digital Census. Any organization tasked with supporting the digital Census must be given resources to adequately provide for the infrastructure and process, as well as the digital safety and security of respondents.

3. Expand digital resources at public libraries. New York’s library systems play an absolutely vital role in connecting New Yorkers to the internet and are uniquely suited to help New Yorkers successfully complete the Census. The City should meet its residents where they are and give libraries the resources they need to help residents complete their Census forms.

4. Expand public awareness campaigns. The transition to a digital Census elevates the importance of educating New Yorkers about the Census. Residents should be aware of all options available for completing the questionnaire and should know how to protect their personal data and how to avoid potential scams.

5. Leverage city assets. In addition to leveraging public libraries, the City should utilize other trusted organizations to educate New Yorkers and facilitate survey completion, including senior centers and public schools.

6. Install Census kiosks. New York City should install interactive kiosks for the public to fill out the survey in trusted locations across the city, such as places of worship, health clinics, and schools.

7. Enlist Census workers with appropriate translation abilities and cultural competencies, regardless of citizenship status. To help conduct the Census, the Census Bureau will recruit hundreds of thousands of workers to act as enumerators or translators. In order to appropriately recruit a diverse range of translators, Census Bureau hiring must be granted an exemption from federal regulations that require Census employees to have U.S. citizenship.

8. Prepare for problems. New York City and its community partners must be prepared for challenges and provide guidance to community outreach groups on how to respond to different situations, including problems with basic system functionality, spotty internet connections, cyberattacks, and phishing schemes.