NYC census outreach is paying off

Julie Menin
Julie Menin
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio announces the appointment of Julie Menin as director of the census for New York City.

NYC census outreach is paying off

A Q&A with New York City census director Julie Menin on putting more resources into phone banks and digital ads to reach New Yorkers.
March 20, 2020

The coronavirus outbreak appears to be depressing census turnout across the nation, but not in New York City. 

During the first week in which people could fill out the census, New Yorkers responded at a higher rate than they did 10 years ago, even as the country's performance declined, according to figures shared by New York City on Friday. 

Of course, it’s quite early on in the weeks-long process, and New York City still lags the country as a whole. But the city’s self-response rate of 10.5% is a promising start, especially when compared with its 6% rate during the first week of the census in 2010, and not so far behind the initial nationwide rate of 14.1%. 

“The initial self-response data shows that the unprecedented citywide Census 2020 campaign is resonating and that New Yorkers, particularly in this critical time, want to ensure that we receive the resources and representation we deserve,” Julie Menin, the director of New York City’s census outreach efforts, said in a statement. “We have far more to do, and we must remain both cautious and vigilant, especially since the communities on the front lines of COVID-19 are also the ones that have been historically undercounted by the census, which is why we need every New Yorker to join our quest to get all of us counted.”

New York City is investing an unprecedented $40 million into efforts to encourage residents to fill out their 2020 census forms. But many of those events and door-knocking initiatives have been put on hold as the global coronavirus pandemic has led local and state governments to limit human interaction to slow the virus’s spread. The effort to a citizenship question this year – even though it failed – may also dampen turnout in some communities.

Yet it looks like New Yorkers will have more time to respond to the survey. The U.S. Census Bureau announced on Friday that it would extend the count – which is being conducted primarily online for the first time – for two weeks to now end on Aug. 14. Earlier this week, City & State spoke with Menin, the director of NYC Census 2020, to find out how the city has changed its approach to make sure all New Yorkers get counted. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you tell me about how New York City’s census operations have had to change in light of the coronavirus?

Before (the) coronavirus, we had held over 500 events all throughout the year, big town halls and large-scale events on the census and the importance of the census. Now, of course, in light of COVID-19, we have revamped our plan.

First of all, we are focused very much on the phone banking and text messaging part of our strategy, which we were always going to do. But now we are making some significant changes. … We’ve pulled down and are changing some of the ads that would have launched in the subways, instead converting those ads to digital and to TV. … Secondly, we are really focused on making sure that New Yorkers understand, from the messaging standpoint, that at this time of coronavirus, the census is incredibly important because health care funds are linked to how many people fill out the census. Whether it’s children’s health insurance, whether it’s funding for hospitals, or the fact that the New York City Health Department looks at census data in emergencies to determine how to respond. … In all of these different instances, we want to make sure that that message is clearly communicated.

And the fact that so many people now are at home, it’s easier than ever to complete the census by just going online or calling the toll-free number.

You had mentioned that the city would be tracking data on the response rates across the five boroughs. How are you going to use that data now to inform which areas to target?

That data is going to be more valuable to us than ever because it will allow us to see by census tract, which is on average about 3,000 people, how many people in that particular census tract responded. Now, before coronavirus, we could have done events in the neighborhood. … Now we’re going to need to reach them remotely. But it still is extremely valuable data because it allows us to phone bank into those census tracts. It allows us to really look at how can we best reach people who are not responding. And also our digital ads. I mean, we’re putting more money than ever now into digital.

One of the challenges in planning is to make sure that New Yorkers have internet access and libraries act as those points of access for some people. But now that a lot of libraries have closed, how do you ensure that people who do not have internet access at home are able to complete the census?

That is a real measurable issue. … We had initially had over 300 pop-ups that were available for people to go into that lacked internet access. Now, due to the coronavirus, we’ve really got to focus on phone banking those individuals because that’s going to be more important than ever –  to ensure that we phone bank them and that they understand that there is a toll-free number that you can call to answer the census. It’s available, that toll-free number, in 13 different languages. … There’s a different number for each of the 13 languages that people can call. In addition, we strongly believe that more paper forms need to be mailed out. We directly expressed that strong concern to the regional bureau. … And they have indicated that it’s likely that they will do so.

Some elected officials and groups have been calling for the census to get delayed. How do you see that playing out? Is that something that you would support?

Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, we are dealing (with) an unprecedented situation. And while we do have the tools digitally and through the telephone … we’re dealing with the unknown and the census is more important than ever now. … We support taking whatever measures are needed to ensure a proper count. And if that means a delay and an extension of time, then we need to absolutely do that.

Usually universities will coordinate with the Census Bureau to get the count out for their students on campus. How is that proceeding now?

We literally started that in January. That was one of the first things in my first week on the job that I started working on, because I quickly learned that, in 2010, some dorms were simply not counted, either because the U.S. Census Bureau didn’t make contact early enough with the university or they weren’t making the proper contact point within the university. I assembled the universities in New York City, had them designate a point person within the university, and then worked with the U.S. Census Bureau to make that contact much earlier because that contact was generally happening right before the count begins. That’s way too late.

Has there been any confusion now that students have en masse been moving back home or displaced from campus?

Because they’re counted in group quarters, whether or not the student is residing in the dorm does not affect the count. … Let’s take (New York University) as an example. So NYU students who are living in the dorms at NYU, we establish a contact within the university system to work directly with the U.S. Census Bureau. They then turn over that administrative data directly to the U.S. Census Bureau. So whether or not the student in particular was living in that dorm at that very moment because of (the) coronavirus does not affect the count.

Placeholder blue outline avatar
Kay Dervishi
is a staff reporter at City & State.