census sign
A census sign at the Winthrop Street subway station in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Sam Bojarski)

By Jonathan Greig

The 2020 Census is well underway, with more than half the country already filling it out online or through the mail. But the coming undercount, which most experts are predicting, will have drastic effects on the recovery effort, particularly in Haitian neighborhoods hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.

The spread of COVID-19 continues to devastate communities across the country but the virus has had a particularly disastrous effect on the 2020 Census, which began in earnest with the self-response phase on March 12.  

For the first time in U.S. history, people will be able to fill out the census online at 2020census.gov and over the phone, giving residents even more options to be counted beyond mail-in forms and in-person visits from census enumerators. 

The additional modes of response were created in an effort to cut down on repeated undercounts of immigrant and Black communities, which are having noticeable effects on the coronavirus response from healthcare systems across New York state. 

Part of why healthcare systems in Black and immigrant neighborhoods have been stressed beyond their capacity in dealing with the virus relates directly to previous undercounts in the 2010 and 2000 census

Every 10 years, the data gathered from the census is used to divvy up nearly $800 billion in funding that goes toward regulating almost every aspect of life — from schools, hospitals and roads to the number of Congressional representatives. 

“The census impacts health, hospitals, children and insurance programs. When you look at things that we’ll be needing like vaccines and testing, census data will play a prominent role in forecasting the quantities that we need and in what communities,” said Kathleen Daniel, New York City Census 2020 field director and a Haitian-American herself. 

“In 2010, the self-response rate for New York City was about 50 percent. When we look at Canarsie in Brooklyn it is among the lowest counts that we have right now in Brooklyn, as it was 10 years ago. It came in at around 36 percent self-response rate, partially due to immigrant communities not trusting or being concerned about immigration and ICE while not being familiar with the impact of the census.”

As of Monday, May 20, about 54 percent of New York state has self responded to the census compared to a national average of more than 59 percent. New York City’s self-response rate is even lower at 49 percent, according to the census website which updates in real-time.

Without accurate counts of how many people live in certain areas, state and federal lawmakers struggle to dole out the correct amount of funding to neighborhoods in need, forcing less money to be spread thinner because more people are being covered by less. 

“I can’t think of a better time to talk about how important it is that people fill out the census because when you look at the strain on our healthcare systems, concerns about supplies, decisions that are going to be made in the near future about vaccines or things like that, local officials use census data to make decisions,” said the U.S. Census Bureau’s New York Regional Director Jeff Behler.

Pascale Bernard, vice president of Public Affairs and Organizing with Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, explained that in the last census there was an undercount in New York state, meaning communities lost valuable money for healthcare, education housing and small business services. 

“We know a lot of people come to this country looking to open businesses and service their communities. All of these things are tied to the census and to ensure that we do not have an undercount again,” Bernard said, urging younger members of the Haitian community to get their friends and elders involved. 

Coronavirus And The 2020 Census

Throughout the country’s history, one of the main ways the census was conducted was through enumerators, who went door to door to collect information on each person’s household. 

A census sign at the Winthrop Street subway station. Photo: Sam Bojarski

For obvious reasons that may not be possible right now, so Behler said they wanted to do everything they can to get everyone to fill out the census form on their own to reduce the need for in-person counting. 

“We had a lot of great things planned and we have a lot of great partners throughout New York state that have been creating plans on bringing communities together. We know in a lot of immigrant communities or communities of color, some of the best ways to motivate people and engage them and actually have them fill out the census are bringing them together and then providing them the resources and the information they need to then go ahead and fill it out,” Behler said. 

“Those are some of the things we had to put on hold because of COVID-19.”

On Aug. 11, the in-person counting begins. The Census Bureau will send out dozens of people to go to apartment units and homes that have not responded to the census to try and get them to fill it out. 

By the end of October, the Census Bureau will have contacted you at least five times through the mail and six times in person. Once the counting ends on Oct. 31, they begin the process of figuring out how to count people who ignored all of those other methods, either through contacting neighbors or landlords. 

If New York still has restrictions in place when they start going door to door in August, Behler said they probably would not conduct in-person census checks. If restrictions are loosened, they will let enumerators go out but they will be given masks and will be given strict guidelines to follow, including that they have to stand at least six feet away from a doorstep.

Daniel said there are four basic pillars of how the city is organizing their census efforts, including multimedia advertising campaigns, grants programs, the field program and efforts trickling through the city’s agencies.

With the virus changing everything, Daniel said they are doing virtual outreach in churches and holding digital teach-ins where they can educate people about why the census is important. 

The city is also spearheading a widespread texting campaign and phone banking in Kreyol in an effort to reach the Haitian community. Daniels said she spoken to radio stations, started WhatsApp groups and worked with clergy members to get the word out. 

“We’re making a tremendous effort with Haitian phone banks in Creole, working with elected officials, recording robocalls in Creole,” Daniel said. “There are challenges but they are not unlike the challenges that most immigrant communities are facing, particularly now.”

How Will Census Undercount Affect Haitian Communities?

The census aims to collect total population data that lets the government know three main things: How many people are in the country? Where do they live? What are their needs? 

Based on this data the government distributes federal dollars, resources and political representation. The census figures are fed into hundreds of federal formulas that determine how much money every community gets for vital programs like food stamps. 

The government uses the data for healthcare funding, emergency medical care, pediatric dollar allocation, money for Center for Disease Control research, infrastructure, transportation and even the sidewalks you cross every day. 

Daniel was open about the fact that Haitians are “going to pave the pathway to recovery by filling out the census,” considering its indelible effect on community resources over the next decade. 

Bernard, who is also Haitian-American, said Planned Parenthood has contacted more than 24,000 people about the census and has gotten commitments from at least 2,000, who said they would try to get three other people to fill out the census.

She noted that for the first time, people can identify themselves as Haitian on the census and said everyone should take pride in filling it out. For Bernard, it was key that Haitians fill out the census as a direct rebuke to Trump’s efforts to scare them away using the potential of a citizenship question. 

But more importantly, she said Haitians needed to fill out the census for the good of their communities in times like this, when the lack of healthcare funding became painfully clear. 

“COVID-19 has really shown the disparities in healthcare and when we’re looking at ZIP codes that have been hardest hit, our people live in those ZIP codes,” Bernard said.     

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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