Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau is supposed to offer Americans a unique opportunity to learn more about our communities. But in the latest count, it came as a surprise that we are the ones who have to teach the federal government about who New Yorkers are. According to the census data released last week, New York City has only grown 2.1 percent in the past 10 years. The idea that our city, universally recognized as the “capital of the world,” barely grew in the past decade is absurd. Even more ridiculous is the notion that Queens, the nation’s fourth-largest and most diverse county, only grew by 1,343 people — or a measly 0.1 percent.
In this troubled economic climate, we as elected officials are looking at every possible way to preserve core government services and protect our most vulnerable. What made this especially grim are the continued cuts from the federal government — money that is primarily based on our census results. The census, despite only being updated every 10 years, is the primary determining factor in what accounts for billions of dollars in federal aid each year. Our city relies on this funding to help improve our schools, build and maintain affordable housing, provide food stamps for needy families and operate hospitals. Funding for small business assistance and repairs to our infrastructure are also based on the census.
So what went wrong with the census that resulted in a severe undercount of our borough’s population? When looking at all the obstacles to getting a full count, it comes as no surprise to see how the cards were stacked against Queens from the beginning. Last year, it was reported the city had to send the addresses of 127,000 apartments or homes — nearly 4 percent of all the housing in the city — that the Census Bureau did not have. The census is conducted first through a mail-in questionnaire. After questionnaires are returned, the bureau sends out surveyors to those addresses that a questionnaire was not returned from to elicit answers. In Queens alone, there are more than 140 languages spoken, all of which are used as the primary language for some residents. For some families not proficient in English, even if they wanted to answer the questionnaire, they would not have been able to.
Imagine the problem confronting an immigrant family when a stranger knocks on the door, identifies himself or herself as an employee of the federal government and begins asking for personal information while promising to use it for “statistical purposes only.” Given the extraordinary anti-immigrant climate in our nation at this time, it is a challenge to ease their fears that the questions they are asked to answer may potentially be used against them — particularly questions regarding their immigration status and the number of people in their household. With the reported reckless behavior of immigration agents in pursuing aliens and the recent illegal deportation of an American citizen, it should come as no surprise that many immigrants do not want to give information for fear of prosecution because of their immigration status or the irregular, overcrowded and often illegal housing conditions they occupy.
Queens has been the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis in New York City, and with the pressing need for additional income by many distressed homeowners, some dwellings have been illegally subdivided, allowing for basement dwellings and more units than permitted. No landlord or resident will ever truthfully answer a questionnaire arriving on their doorstep asking how many people are inside the household, let alone return it at all. A month later, when a Census worker knocks on their door asking how many people live in their household, they are either given a severe undercount or no answer at all — regardless if they are told it is completely confidential.
For those of us who live and work in Queens, it comes as a shock to hear numbers that we all know to be grossly inaccurate. For example, in Jackson Heights, home to large South American and South Asian populations that have increased dramatically over the past decade, the Census Bureau reported that there were 5,200 less people living here than in 2000. That comes out to a 5 percent decrease. Our constituents would laugh if you told them, as they attempted to get a seat on the bus or subway at the Roosevelt Avenue-74th Street transportation hub that their community has gotten smaller over the past 10 years.
Another supposed decrease came in the Astoria and northwest area of Queens, where the Census Bureau reported that there were 10,000 less residents today than there were in 2000. In an area of Queens that has been revitalized by major commercial development, a wide array of new restaurants and a renewed bustling cultural district, the Census Bureau counted 1,300 less occupied units and 1,200 more vacant units than in 2000. Anyone who has tried to find apartments in this area, or tried to use the overcrowded E, M and R subway lines know that this is not the case. It is disturbing that when Census surveyors were unsuccessful in reaching someone, they would invariably designate the dwelling as vacant and point to systemic issues of the current census-taking as a whole.
The mayor has noted that the city intends to appeal the Census Bureau’s findings under the Count Question Resolution, which affords us an opportunity to challenge the count. But again, history shows that not much is expected. In 2000, challenges from across the country only resulted in an increase of 2,700 people with a population of 281 million. Despite the efforts of the city to challenge the results, we need to demand that the federal government outlay a strategy that begins to support census-taking in urban areas rather than continuously undercount us.
What we and other large urban areas have learned from this census and ones before it is that there must be a complete overhaul and review of how the federal government counts its largest cities. We need to begin to have an honest, realistic dialogue with congressional leaders from both parties on why a simple headcount cannot be the means to accurately assess the demographics of our communities. In addition, we must demand that the Census Bureau take an initiative to not use a one-size fits all model of counting people. The census strategy that is employed in a rural area of Nebraska simply cannot be the same model that is used in Elmhurst.
The future of our children’s education, health system and infrastructure demands that we expect better from the U.S. Census Bureau.