EDITORIAL: State must learn from failed census effort

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PHOTOGRAPHER:

All those who are shrugging off New York’s final census numbers — lamenting the fact that the count had to be conducted during the pandemic, being amazed that a state with a reputation for bleeding population came so close to not losing any congressional seats at all and expressing relief that we only lost one seat instead of more — are missing the big picture.

The loss was huge — and preventable.

The impact of the census count and the related redistribution of House seats, with New York losing one seat to drop from 27 to 26, could be significant for many reasons.

Let’s start with the impact on the level of federal financial assistance our citizens can expect to receive over the next decade.

A few thousand dollars here, a few thousand dollars there on a multitude of government programs could add up quickly.

In an editorial last August stressing the importance of filling out the census, we listed several dozen federal programs and grants that are influenced by the census count — from colleges and public school grants, to child care grants, to highway funds, to housing, to assistance for the elderly and the poor, to employment training, to agriculture and the arts, and just about every other federal program that touches every other aspect of our lives.

As a result of losing not only this seat, but the cumulative loss of five seats in the past 30 years, our state’s influence in a House of Representatives with an ever-narrowing partisan gap is being diminished.

The vote being cast now by our 27th representative will instead soon be cast by a representative from Texas or Minnesota or Florida. Maybe that one vote doesn’t matter in a particular issue important or critical to New York. But then again, maybe it does.

With one fewer seat in Congress, the state’s congressional districts will have to be aligned to place more citizens in each of the remaining 26. That means less individual representation for each of us.

You may even lose your current congressional representative in the reshuffle (which could be good or bad, depending on your politics).

That seat is likely to be taken from upstate New York and from a Republican district — so if you fall into either or both those two categories, this could be a hit.

As a result of the redistribution of congressional seats, New York will be losing a vote in the Electoral College, diminishing our state’s potential influence in the next two presidential elections in 2024 and 2028.

We’ve seen how close presidential elections can get. Our one lost vote might one day be the difference.

The worst part is we didn’t have to lose the seat, even if our population is migrating to other areas in greater numbers than other states.

That’s because the census count isn’t about determining exactly how many people are in each state. It’s really a competition among states to see who does the best job of counting.

We could lose actual population and still hold onto or even gain a congressional seat, depending on the job we did counting our own people vs. the job other states did in counting theirs.

The winners in the 2020 census were the states that not only experienced population increases but that also did the best job reaching out to the people who tend to avoid filling out the census — immigrants, minorities and others who are traditionally reluctant about sharing information with the government.

Yes, New York has a high immigrant population, but so do Texas and Florida, two states that gained congressional seats this year.

As far as Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatening to sue the federal government over the count, forget it.

Yes, President Trump limited the time of the count and took legal action to try to scare minorities and immigrants into not participating. But that didn’t just affect New York. We’re not going to legitimately claim that we were singularly affected by Trump’s actions or covid.

Past Supreme Court decisions on census challenges have made it clear that winning such a legal challenge is nearly impossible. There are better uses of our time and effort than a legal challenge that is almost guaranteed to fail.

We’re stuck with the results and we’re stuck with losing our congressional seat for the next decade.

The 2020 census should be a wake-up call for how to manage the census in 2030.

New York invested $30 million in the current census effort, a paltry amount considering the impact it has.

Some counties in the state did a great job with education and outreach and with getting the count out. Others didn’t.

It shouldn’t be up to individual counties to bear the burden; it should be a full-out, statewide effort that doesn’t wait until 2029 to get ramped up.

Right now, the state should be preparing for Census 2030 by reaching out to immigrant and minority communities; by rebuilding trust in the system; by beginning now to lay the groundwork for an exhaustive, on-the-ground effort to count as many people as possible; by forming a 2030 census commission to coordinate and organize efforts, and by allocating the funds in the state budget to ensure a complete and effective effort.

The state also needs to take the next decade to honestly assess why people are leaving New York in such large numbers and to address the causes of the exodus.

That means finally starting to address the overregulation and high taxation that drives many New Yorkers to other states.

With the federal COVID stimulus package, New York had the rare opportunity to get its financial house in order by spending and taxing responsibly.

But it squandered the opportunity, and now must address its problems without the extra help. The state can’t wait any longer.

Because the impact of the census is so significant and long-term, so too must be the effort be to ensure New Yorkers get the most out of it.

Continuing down the same path of driving our citizens away and of not accurately counting those who remain is a recipe for failure.

How many hits can New Yorkers take before our state officials begin to take both seriously?

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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