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‘Hard-to-count’ populations may slip through U.S. Census

‘Hard-to-count’ populations may slip through U.S. Census

Schenectady officials work for more complete count
‘Hard-to-count’ populations may slip through U.S. Census
Photographer: Shutterstock

SCHENECTADY — Canvassers for the 2020 U.S. Census won’t start knocking on doors until next spring. 

But officials already are stressing the importance of a full accounting of the U.S. population — including traditionally hard-to-count urban populations in Schenectady’s poorest neighborhoods.  

At stake is a slice of $675 billion in federal funding for housing, education, transportation, employment training, health care and social service programs that trickle down to the local level. 

“The size of the pie will grow, but we need to ensure our slice is as large and accurate as can be,” said U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.

To ensure a complete count, government and community leaders are mobilizing to create partnerships to drum up awareness. 

The mantra of the Complete Count Committees is to “count everyone once, only once and in the right place,” said Marc DeNofio, a partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau’s New York Regional Office. 

Children under 5, homeless and transient populations, college students, undocumented immigrants, minorities and those living in poverty are prone to slipping through the cracks. 

Results can also be skewed when wealthy people have a higher rate of response in a given census tract than impoverished people, resulting in a lack of funding for clinics, schools, roads and bridges, child care and other programs.

Even a small degree of underreporting can result in reduced programming, DeNofio said. 

For instance, the city’s Guyanese community may benefit from grant-funded programs. But if the city’s population falls under a certain threshold on the count, those funding opportunities may prove to be elusive. 

Resistance and skepticism of government may lead to depressed participation, while others may not want the government to know how many people cohabitate in a dwelling, for instance. 

LOCAL COMMITTEE

Gov. Andrew Cuomo previously appointed a Complete Count Committee designed to inform and direct the state’s efforts. 

Mayor Gary McCarthy said he plans to appoint a local committee to coordinate local efforts by the end of the month. 

That body will work to locally publicize the count, alleviate fears and assist people with the mechanics of filling out paper forms. 

McCarthy said the public awareness campaign must be a sustained effort — not just a one-off event. 

"It has to be an ongoing process and we have to keep chipping away,” McCarthy said.

While anyone can participate in the Complete Count, libraries are valued partnerships owing to their access to resources and connections to immigrant and faith-based communities. 

DeNofio asked the City Council to identify areas and organizations that can help pinpoint hard-to-count populations — like the Schenectady Inner City Ministry, for instance — and conduct outreach in those communities.

“You are the best resource we have for engaging the population,” he told the City Council.

The Rev. Phil Grigsby, executive director of SICM, served as chair of the local Complete Count commission for the 2000 U.S. Census.

"We'll do a lot of outreach through the food pantry because that's where we see a lot of the vulnerable populations," Grigsby said.

He acknowledged it can be challenging to convince people to participate.

"People are just busy surviving and say, 'Why would I do this?'" Grigsby said.

Mike Saccocio, executive director and CEO of the City Mission of Schenectady, said the shelter is privately funded and does not benefit from state or federal dollars, but will work to ensure its residents are counted. 

On average, the downtown shelter houses between 90 and 100 homeless people daily.

“We’re certainly going to participate,” Saccocio said. “We’ll respond enthusiastically to ensure the count is accurate.”

Answers can be used only to produce statistics, and by law, the U.S. Census Bureau cannot share data with law enforcement or immigration enforcement agencies or allow it to be used to determine eligibility for government benefits. 

“The only info you get out of it is the number at the end,” DeNofio said. “They’re just looking to count how many live there — no names.”

Tonko warned against those seeking to intimidate vulnerable populations. 

“Don’t let people play that intimidation game,” he told social services providers, nonprofits and local officials at a Schenectady Community Action Program meeting last week.

And for those who choose not to opt in: “You’re hurting you, you’re hurting the community and you’re hurting the state,” he said. 

HOUSE SEAT AT RISK

The decennial count also determines allocation of U.S. House seats.

New York is among the states losing population, putting it at risk for losing at least one of its 27 seats. 

“We can ill-afford to lose seats as a state,” Tonko said.

The Census garnered headlines earlier this year when the Trump administration sought to add a citizenship question to the questionnaire, a campaign that was dropped after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the administration, calling its rationale “contrived.”

McCarthy dismissed those efforts as “unproductive.” 

“It’s unfortunate the debate at the federal level takes away from the merit of this program,” McCarthy said.

The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to cut federal funding for community programming. But the funds, including federal Community Development Block Grants, have found bipartisan support in Congress.

“This is an administration that has been really aggressive in doing away with programs that speak for the quality of life for the people we all work for,” Tonko said. 

Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said federal cuts result in states feeling pressured to make up the difference. 

New York tends to be more supportive of social programs than other states, he said. 

When federal dollars are cut, social services and nonprofits tend to get squeezed — particularly those without aggressive lobbying efforts. This results in a long series of underfunded programs as part of what Steck characterized as a “shell game.”

And when it comes to repairing and rebuilding the state’s crumbling water and sewer infrastructure, the lack of federal dollars gives Albany two options:

Raise taxes, or “let it go to hell.”

“What do you think they’re doing?” Steck said. “They’re letting it go to hell — you can’t rely on the state to make up the difference.”

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