By Jonathan Greig
The Census 2020 response rates in Brooklyn neighborhoods with large Haitian populations are lagging far behind average city and national numbers, raising concerns about how severe the undercount will be.
For the first time in the country’s history, the federal government has made it possible for people to follow along online as census workers count everyone living in the United States. The Census Bureau updates the website daily to show response rates in every district of all 50 states.
As of June 22, about 60 percent of New York State has filled out the census while nearly 53 percent have sent in their census responses in New York City.
But when you drill down into the numbers more closely, it is easy to see that majority Haitian districts and communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County are not keeping up with the rest of the state.
The census response rate in Spring Valley is just 41 percent while areas around Canarsie and Flatbush range from response numbers as high as about 45 percent to as low as 33 percent. According to census data from 2010, only about 50 percent of residents in these same areas ended up filling out the census. The numbers from Queens range from as low as 34% to just below 50% in parts of Elmont and Hempstead.
New York could potentially lose two congressional seats and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding that would have gone to schools, hospitals and roads in the city according to Haitian-American NYC Census 2020 Field Director Kathleen Daniel.
The census is even more important now because experts say it will be vital to the economic recovery effort once the pandemic is fully dealt with. Health officials have also said that when a vaccine is finally ready to be disbursed, they will use census data to portion out how much is needed for each area in the country.
Experts and local politicians cited a range of reasons for why the response rates were this low after months of effort.
Both Daniel and U.S. Census Bureau’s New York Regional Director Jeff Behler explained in interviews that efforts to count everyone have been hampered by the pandemic because typically, they are able to popularize the census to the public through events, church groups and other in-person meetings that have all been shut down due to COVID-19.
Because New York City was America’s epicenter for COVID-19 for months, Behler noted that it makes sense why the response rates are lower considering some residents may have fled the city and others have been preoccupied with the virus.
“We know those areas that are lagging in self response, those areas like North Corona and East Elmhurst are some of the areas that have really been struck hard by COVID-19. It’s southeast Queens and African American neighborhoods in Brooklyn,” he said.
Daniel highlighted that thousands of Haitians and Haitian-Americans work in New York as nurses, taxi drivers and other professions drastically affected by the coronavirus pandemic. All of these communities need funding to help revitalize them once health concerns are dealt with. Despite the need for everyone to fill out the census, Daniel said she understood why many Haitians avoided the form entirely.
“These are underserved people that are struggling financially. The struggles of the Haitian community are not uncommon to most but adding in the language barrier and immigration status does create a culture of fear,” Daniel said.
Urban Institute Vice President & Chief Methodologist Robert Santos told The Haitian Times that they released a 50-page study last June detailing why there will be an undercount and how it will affect the country’s Black residents, calling the undercount “inevitable” due to actions taken throughout 2019 by the Trump administration. The concerns expressed in that report have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The count began officially on January 21 but census forms were mailed to all households in March. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau’s plans have changed drastically, forcing them to push back the end date to October 31. In most years, a significant amount of the counting is done by enumerators who go door to door but for obvious reasons, that will be significantly more difficult.
Behler said they will allow households to self-respond through the end of October but will try to start knocking on doors by August 11.
Josue Pierre, the Haitian-American District Leader for the 42nd Assembly District, said language barriers and the inability to hold census events have also hampered efforts to increase the response numbers.
Yet the virus has not stopped him from trying to get the word out about the census. During a June 12 mask distribution event at Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Flatbush with powerful Haitian-American Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, he also reminded people to fill out the census. They also had people at the table who could help explain what the census is, why it is important and why it is necessary for every household to fill it out.
“I know that for Haitian immigrants specifically, especially those who probably can’t speak the language, there is a barrier. So I’ve tried to use my radio program every Sunday to encourage people to fill out the census,” Pierre said.
“I push them to do it over the internet, but they are not technology savvy, have one of the kids in the house do it for you. If that’s not possible, do it over the phone. All you have to do is dial the number and someone will speak Haitian Creole with you.”