Pandemic accentuates usual census undercount in Black and African communities: outreach leaders

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Black and African communities, especially the male population, have traditionally been undercounted by the U.S. Census, but the pandemic is expected to bring the response rate particularly low, a bad omen for survey organizers.

Now the Census Bureau is looking for new ways to not only engage communities in outreach but instill a sense of duty in black communities to fill out the survey without prompting.

“Sadly, in 2010, nearly 800,000 Black and African Americans were undercounted and that would be inclusive of the non-responsive follow-up period. Such a significant number of people, we can certainly do better than that,” said Austin Patrick, a strategist on Black/African American outreach from Team Y&R, a communications firm contracted by the bureau.

According to Patrick, showing the communities that outreach is not without personal protective equipment is key in sowing trust.

While Patrick stresses the importance of providing the questionnaire in languages specific to the Caribbean and many parts of Africa, Deacon Rodney Beckford, a census organizer in Harlem says door-to-door outreach in New York City Housing Authority buildings is a critical, grassroots approach to getting an accurate count. Even outreach at food pantries and parishes comes into the fold.

“The mantra that we have is that… Get counted, get registered, get out the vote. If you don’t get counted, you don’t count. And that’s how we’re taking the lead in this pandemic and in this time for change,” Beckford, director of the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Center in Harlem, said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio brought together people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds in January in a call to complete the census – the counting has begun. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

With COVID-19 slowing pretty much everything down, governmentally, the Census Bureau issued an extension on the deadline from April 1 to Oct. 31. But Governor Andrew Cuomo is still reminding New Yorkers that the clock is ticking, and procrastination could impact federal resources provided to the cash-strapped state.

“It’s absolutely critical that every New Yorker is counted and that residents are informed that Census responses, regardless of the respondents’ immigration or citizenship status, are confidential, safe and secure,” Cuomo said Tuesday in a statement. “There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has presented unprecedented obstacles to completing the Census. However, the pandemic also highlights a key reason why the Census is so vital—New York State continues to seek substantial funding and aid from the federal government.”

MTA Chairman Pat Foye, whose agency is looking at a $16 billion deficit by 2024 and has been banging the drum for emergency federal stimulus funds iin the sum of $3.9 billion just for 2020 alone, is not taking the census for granted in the time of COVID-19. The push for every penny is real for transit networks across the country.

“Implications of participating in the census are particularly timely as we fight for federal financial support for mass transit. With the historic challenges we are facing, now would be the worst possible time to lose representation in Washington,” Foye said.

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