Julie Menin’s message is simple. New York is in a nationwide contest for political power and billions of dollars in federal funding – and it all comes down to its residents taking two minutes to fill out a census form this spring.
“We are fighting for money for public schools, public housing, our senior centers, Medicaid, Head Start,” Menin said before a packed Manhattan Community Board 10 meeting in Harlem this month. “And if we don’t fill the census out, who gets that money? It goes to other states.”
As the director of NYC Census 2020, Menin has made it a priority to make sure New Yorkers fully understand what’s at stake. It was a message she said she didn’t get when she was informed about the census a decade ago, while chairing Community Board 1 in lower Manhattan.
“I will never forget that someone from the federal Census Bureau came by and said, ‘It’s time to fill the census out. It’s your civic duty to do so,’” she said last month in an interview. “And no one paid any attention.”
New York ended up doing particularly poorly in 2010, with an initial response rate far below the national average, which caused the state to lose two congressional seats. But this year, even more is at stake after the Trump administration’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the census.
"If we don't fill the census out, who gets that money? It goes to other states." - Julie Menin
“President Trump thought he could bully the people of New York City,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said during the launch of the city’s census outreach campaign. “He thought he could convince them not to respond to the census. He thought he could intimidate us. Well, he’s been away from New York a little too long. Maybe things are different in Florida but here in New York we do not get intimidated.”
The citizenship question ultimately was a fight about political representation and funding, Menin said.
“It's really truly about an illegal attempt by the Trump administration to cause progressive cities such as New York City to lose funding, because we have a large immigrant population,” she said, adding that representation that doesn’t go to New York would be diverted to Republican states.
On top of that, the U.S. Census Bureau has pulled back its field operations across the country to invest more resources in its transition to the first online census. The digital census has and only will be tested once in the United States, spurring fears that this year’s count will be marred by server failures, hacking and other technical issues.
Several states, including New York – which is already expected to lose at least one congressional seat – are now trying to fill in the gaps to ensure their population gets counted. New York has put $60 million toward census outreach, which is 30 times the amount it spent in 2010. New York City is investing a historic $40 million as well – the last time around, the city put no public funding into supporting the count.
Menin, who also serves as the city’s executive assistant corporation counsel for strategic advocacy, has been spearheading a high-stakes plan for the past year, joining efforts in the middle of the legal fight over the Trump administration’s proposed citizenship question. It’s not an unfamiliar position for Menin, who colleagues say has marked her career by untangling difficult problems. She launched new programs to boost gender equity as commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and brought the Grammy Awards back to the city. And before she took the reins at what was then the Department of Consumer Affairs, the agency had been plagued by criticisms that it issued excessive fines to businesses. As commissioner, she shifted the agency’s focus to consumer restitution and reduced fines. It was also in that role that she learned the key to a strong ground campaign while promoting both the city’s earned income tax credit and the paid sick leave law.
“I remember seeing it on digital, social, online, offline, TV, radio, taxi TV – like everywhere I was seeing stuff about paid sick (leave),” said Neal Kwatra, founder and CEO of Metropolitan Public Strategies.
But the census is probably Menin’s biggest challenge yet. The city has never taken on this type of comprehensive outreach effort before, and there are few roadmaps outlining the perfect way to run such a citywide campaign. And if the next six months don’t turn out a better count, New Yorkers will have to deal with its ramifications for the next decade.
Every 10 years since 1790, the federal government tries to count every person in the country. And after each count since 1950, New York has been hit with bad news. Back then, the state had 45 congressional representatives. That number has consistently fallen, leaving residents with 27 representatives today.
Now this is mostly due to New York’s declining population, but these results may also be attributed to the state’s low census response rate, which was 5 percentage points below the national average in 2010. Only 61.9% of New York City residents filled out the first census form they received that year, compared with the national average of 75.8%. Those self-response rates were particularly dismal in some parts of Brooklyn, where less than half of residents responded. The 2000 census produced similarly poor results: New York City’s initial response rate was 55%, far below the national average of 67%.
“I’m a mom, that’s a failing grade,” Menin said. “If your child brings home a 61.9%, you’re not going to be too happy on the test.”
State government spending on the 2010 census was significantly lower than this year, with the state putting up $2 million a decade ago. “That was based on a recommendation I made to the then-Senate majority leader when Democrats controlled the Senate 10 years ago, but we had no real idea of how much we wanted to ask for,” said Jeff Wice, a census and redistricting expert who is currently a senior fellow at New York Law School.
The city didn’t spend any money on the census in 2010, as then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg focused mostly on mobilizing private dollars for the census. Collaborating with the city, a group of foundations raised about $600,000 to help New York City with the census, said Patricia Swann, senior program officer with The New York Community Trust. Even that is dwarfed by the philanthropic community’s initiative today: The New York State Census Equity Fund has dedicated $3 million to organizations across the state for 2020.
People are encouraged to fill out the census form starting around mid-March, after the U.S. Census Bureau begins to mail out its forms. This period is particularly important for Menin because it gives the city its best chance of being accurately counted. Otherwise, the rest of the count will be put into the hands of “enumerators” hired by the federal government to count everyone who didn’t respond by knocking on their doors. When people don’t open their doors, enumerators will try to guess the number of people who live in a household by consulting with neighbors. Those estimates leave room for error, and it is a big part of why children under the age of 5 are often undercounted.
The census form asks how many people are living in a particular household as of April 1, whether they own their home or rent, and for their demographic information, including race, gender and age. But despite the form’s simplicity, language barriers, distrust of government, confusion about what’s on the form and how to fill it out can make certain communities reluctant to send it back. These are what experts dub “hard-to-count” populations, and there are a lot in New York: immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, renters and the homeless. And the 14.5% of people in New York state without internet access will be another hard-to-count population in 2020.
"President Trump thought he could bully the people of New York City. He thought he could convince them not to respond to the census...Here in New York we do not get intimidated." - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
There was one sliver of hope to come out of the 2010 census. In Washington Heights and Inwood, nearly 3 in 4 people sent back the census form – the highest self-response rate in the city and among the highest in the nation, despite having a heavily Latino population that is typically considered difficult to count.
“A lot of local people worked on the census, particularly young people,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who served as an assemblyman at the time. “So I think it’s important when you send somebody to knock on someone’s door that that person is culturally sensitive, that the people that are answering the door could identify with that person.”
Collaboration and relying on community-based organizations, local businesses, doctors and, in particular, pediatricians was key in getting people in the area motivated for the count, an approach that now serves as a model for the rest of the city. But emulating that strategy everywhere from the Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park to the Puerto Rican population in the Bronx will take more resources – and convincing.
A dozen nonprofit employees attending a census training in downtown Manhattan were greeted by round white tables stacked with blue and orange Post-it notes, markers and a pile of pipe cleaners. The latter were just to play with if they had trouble concentrating, according to the nonprofit consultants from Community Resource Exchange who were leading the training and trying to make it more fun.
“We want to invite you all to share your name, your organization, one question that you’re coming into today’s session with and then (an) estimated number of people that you reach in any given year,” said one of the consultants, George Hsieh. “Estimated – we’re not going to hold you to it.”
John DeWind, executive director of the Nostrand Avenue Improvement Association, spoke first. Based in Crown Heights – which only had roughly half its residents initially respond to the census in 2010 – the organization reaches 1,200 people through its magazine and works with four different churches that each have about 400 to 500 members, he said.
“I’m just going to be generous and say 5,000 people,” Hsieh said, scrawling the number on the poster board at the front of the room.
And so each person in the room introduced themselves, representing organizations doing everything from helping domestic violence and sexual assault survivors to running arts programs. Eventually, the poster board filled up with a list of numbers totaling 302,037.
“The reality is, you all, even just the 20 some of us in this room, have an incredible reach in the city,” Hsieh said.
Community-based organizations have emerged as a central component of outreach efforts across the state, since many already work with hard-to-count communities on a daily basis.
Their role features heavily in New York City’s four-pronged plan to get its residents counted. In December, the city awarded $19 million to more than 150 nonprofits working in areas with low self-response rates in 2010. To varying degrees, each will coordinate education and outreach events and incorporate census messaging into their daily work and social media.
"It's ... an illegal attempt by the Trump administration to cause progressive cities such as New York City to lose funding." - Julie Menin
And not unlike a political campaign, they’ll be taking a grassroots approach. Nonprofits will use call centers, send text messages and do canvassing to let people know about the census. In some cases, they’ll collaborate on those efforts with one of the 245 city-organized volunteer groups known as Neighborhood Organizing Census Committees, or NOCCs, which will also be key in the city’s field campaign. More than 2,500 people have signed up with the committees online or via a commitment card as of early January.
The U.S. Census Bureau will also for the first time be publishing live updates on which areas have been filling out the census form online. That feedback will allow the city to deploy more resources in real time to neighborhoods that are slower to respond.
The third portion of the plan is to incorporate census education and outreach into city agencies. Then there was the city’s announcement this month that it would take $8 million from its $40 million campaign and put it toward census marketing and advertising in at least 16 languages. Reaching the hardest to count communities is especially a priority – 70% of its print and digital budget will go toward community and ethnic media. Details will be rolling out in the next few weeks about how the messages will play across television, radio, social media and other platforms.
“We’re message testing a number of different messages in communities all across the city right now,” Menin said last month. “But we’re also going to market and advertise in new and unconventional ways. So on WhatsApp, for example, that’s going to be a great way that we can reach New Yorkers.” When asked if the census would get some celebrity promotion, such as when the “Broad City” stars encouraged New Yorkers to vote on the charter revisions last year, Menin said the city will partner with some “key influencers across all demographics.”
The Association for a Better New York, which has emerged as a major hub for census organizers, is doing its own parallel marketing research to help nonprofits. Its research so far has found that some communities may see filling out the census as a form of resistance to the federal government, said Melva Miller, the association’s executive vice president, while others that have a greater trust in the federal government may respond to different messages. The organization is even creating a temporary communications agency to help those organizations find the right strategy.
“My biggest concern in New York City is this idea of potentially too many cooks in the kitchen,” said Chris Dick, a former Census Bureau statistician who currently works at Civis Analytics, a data science software and consulting firm. New York City stakeholders are all too aware of this concern, that 10 different groups might be knocking on the door of someone who’s already agreed to fill out the census. But Menin said that every phone call or text – by nonprofits, volunteers or city staffers – will be tracked, thanks to software the city will be deploying.
Miller is also making sure that all the groups focused on the census – from labor unions to businesses to government officials – are in constant communication through the Association for a Better New York.
“Although you know, nobody wants to duplicate or overlap, we only have one opportunity to get the census count completed correctly,” said Wice, who’s involved in various 2020 census efforts. “So every effort helps. We just need to make sure that people stay on the best messaging, that we don’t do things like send volunteers going door-to-door (at) the same time the Census Bureau is doing that.”
Beyond the city, some localities more reliant on state help may not be lucky enough that have problem.
“There were lots of Complete Count Committees that weren’t doing things because they didn’t have money,” said Meeta Anand, census 2020 senior fellow at the New York Immigration Coalition, which is focusing much of its efforts upstate in light of New York City’s more robust infrastructure.
The state has yet to distribute funds to local governments to prepare for the census. Advocates initially had pushed Gov. Andrew Cuomo to dedicate $40 million for community groups in last year’s budget. The budget ended up including half that amount, though the governor later set aside an additional $40 million for state agencies to conduct census outreach. He has proposed an additional $10 million in this year’s state budget this week and the creation of a new Census Count Council, headed by celebrities Lin-Manuel Miranda and Lucy Liu as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s son. Frustrations for advocacy groups piled on when the governor delayed naming members to the state Complete Count Commission, which was then late in issuing its report containing recommendations on how to best spend that money.
Funding has already been allocated to county and city governments, but that funding won’t be disbursed until the end of January. Many nonprofit leaders are concerned that by the time local governments receive that money and disburse it to community groups, it’ll be too late for them to plan their strategies for reaching hard-to-count communities.
“The Department of State, the Department of Labor and Empire State Development are jointly working with local governments on their outreach plans for hard-to-reach communities as we continue to advance these efforts,” Jack Sterne, press secretary for Empire State Development, said in a statement.
Despite all local and state efforts, however, much of the count will naturally be dependent on the U.S. Census Bureau. The federal agency is responsible for counting people in jails, prisons, homeless shelters and universities – institutions that submit tallies directly – as well as managing a three-day count in the spring of the street homeless. But some of the greatest anxiety has been the fact that the bureau cut 13 local census offices in the state since 2010 and closed their walk-in centers.
The federal agency does still have about 100 partnership specialists throughout the state that collaborate with different local groups to provide information and education, but otherwise its resources have gone toward developing technology for the first digital census. Menin said that the new digital census makes those field operations all the more important because of how many questions will come up.
“There will be myriad questions that emerge and yet there are no walk-in centers,” Menin said.
Jeff Behler, regional director of the bureau’s New York region office – which serves eight Northeastern states and Puerto Rico – said the agency’s approach made more sense.
“We don’t need to have a physical office in place in order to have employees working in that particular community,” he said.
Also key for the bureau will be hiring enough enumerators to count people after the self-response period. It’s a particularly difficult task when unemployment as is as low as it is, Behler said, so the bureau has boosted pay and focused on pitching the jobs as lucrative part-time positions. As of early January, it had recruited only about 62% to 63% of its goal for New York state.
“We inflate our recruiting goals, because we typically have a lot of turnover on a census,” Behler said.
It was a rainy Friday evening in December, and happy hour was in full swing at a downtown Manhattan bar. In one corner, people were celebrating a farewell party. In another, a man donning a Christmas hat and felt Santa Claus-themed tie reclined under yellow string lights. And in the center, city employees and nonprofit staff jostling about in the crowded bar were abuzz about redistricting and census funding.
They called it the “Census Armageddon” – a pleasant retreat for everyone all-in on the census to have a drink and take a break. But they’d already run into trouble in planning the event for an ominous date – Friday the 13th – switching venues hours before the meetup.
“We are just calling this a dress rehearsal for Rapid Response!” Anand, who organized the happy hour, wrote in the email notifying the attendees. It was all quite symbolic for her – the census as something both scary and exciting.
“It’s collaborative, it’s partnership-building,” Anand told City & State at the event, illuminated by the Christmas tree behind her. “It’s great.”
Those conflicting feelings are likely to dominate in the coming months, when mobilization to get people counted will pick up. And the battle won’t be done then. When the final population numbers are released by the Census Bureau by the end of the year – which could result in the loss of one or even two House seats in New York – the next challenge will be redistricting, with a whole new process to draw those boundaries.
New York changed its redistricting process in 2014 after the state Legislature failed to compromise on drawing congressional boundaries in the aftermath of the 2010 census, leaving it up to a federal court to decide. The four Democratic and Republican leaders in the state Legislature will each appoint two members to a redistricting commission. The eight commissioners will then vote to pick the remaining two members and, next year, draft a redistricting plan for the Assembly, state Senate and Congress that state lawmakers must then approve.
If New York incorporates inaccurate census numbers, it may result in overrepresentation of certain communities in the new districts. That makes focusing on the 2020 census vital, and Menin is quick to say so when meeting with New Yorkers.
“It’s not an overstatement to say that one of the most important issues that’s affecting New York City’s future,” Menin said, “is the census.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated with details about Cuomo's proposed Census Count Council, and to clarify that a federal court decided on congressional district boundaries after the 2010 census.