For every resident who fails to respond to the census, New York City loses $3,000 in federal aid. Undercounted residents also cost the city electoral power, because districts with lower populations get fewer assembly and congress members.
Surely, many New Yorkers who haven’t returned their census forms have heard some of this message—what with the $388 million, the Washington Examiner reports, the Census Bureau has spent to communicate it in English and in various foreign languages. But, as in past decades, New York City is on track to ignore the census more than the average city.
Sixty-nine percent of households nationwide submitted their census forms by April 16. 64 percent of New Yorkers did. Among the boroughs, Brooklyn scored lowest, with 52 percent participating. 124 New York City census tracts participated at rates less than 40 percent, according to a map produced by regional census officials.
Most of the New York City census tracts with the lowest rates of participation are heavily black and/or immigrant. At a Monday City Council hearing, where several Council members wringed their hands about New York’s subpar performance, Census officials explained why so many New Yorkers ignore the count.
It turns out, a lot of us don’t respond because we’re dwelling in off-the-books housing, co-habiting with off-the-books people and/or engaged in off-the-books work. Because of these factors, even after the Census Bureau makes an effort through July to knock on every uncounted door in the city, participation in New York will likely remain below the national average.
Nearly 40 percent of the new housing created in NYC from 1990 to 2005 years is illegal, much of it in residential basements and attics. The Census Bureau found a lot of those residents—if not most of them—and sent them the forms, but many families probably never received them. “There are many households where the landlord sorts the mail,” says Stacey Cumberbatch, the city’s 2010 Census coordinator. Speaking from the point of view of a landlord with illegal tenants, she adds: “If I get a form for my illegal tenants, I may not give it to them, wondering how anyone knows they live in the basement.”
Some of New York’s public housing residents and voucher holders don’t want the New York City Housing Authority to know that a cousin, friend or partner lives with them, because telling the truth would jeopardize their leases or vouchers. They fear—despite NYCHA assurances to the contrary—that reporting their household headcount will create a paper trail leading to their eviction. “We need to get the message out that it’s safe to participate in this activity,” says Tony Farthing, director of the Census Bureau’s New York Regional Office. “No one will take your apartment away from you.”
An estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants live in New York City, and fear—despite the Census Bureau’s denials—their participation in the census will lead to their deportation.