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Why the Census is more important than ever

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Who counts? It has the power to determine our future—and how $675 billion of federal funding is distributed

A black woman wearing a headscarf holds a poster that reads: “I count because I am your neighbor” and is surrounded by signs that say: “US Constitution Says No To Citizenship Question” during a press conference in NYC
Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers—on view at the Museum of the City of New York until September 20, 2020—explores how artists, demographers, and statisticians have used Census data to grok who New Yorkers are now and throughout history.
Courtesy John McCarten / New York City Council

Who, exactly, is a New Yorker? There’s no single, definitive answer, but every 10 years the city gets a snapshot of its collective identity through the U.S. Census, which is mandated by the Constitution and aims to count every resident of the United States. Filling out the 2020 Census is one of the most important civic duties you can complete.

But the census is more than just a headcount of everyone living in the U.S.; it’s really about determining who has power in the country and how over $675 billion of federal funding is allocated. And that’s where it often becomes contentious—particularly in New York City, which has historically struggled with undercounting its residents.

The Museum of the City of New York’s (MCNY) exhibition “Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers,” explores how artists, demographers, and statisticians have used census data to grok who New Yorkers are now and throughout history. It opened in December 2019. While MCNY is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, portions of the exhibition are available online.

“Frankly, there is a lot at stake for New York and New Yorkers—and for all of us as residents of this place and citizens of this country,” said Sarah Henry, MCNY’s deputy director and chief curator, during the exhibition’s press preview. “We’re aiming in this exhibition not only to highlight the importance of the upcoming census, but also to help people feel that they can relate to it, that they can decipher the incredible swirl of data that’s out there, and ultimately to give everybody a better understanding of our city and its residents along the way.”

And there is a lot at stake for New Yorkers: Today, the results of the census determine congressional representation (there are 435 seats that are distributed according to population); electoral college votes; how $650 billion in federal funding for social services, public housing, and infrastructure is allocated; where people send their children to school; and so much more.

“What makes New York City so contentious is partially because it’s the nation’s largest city,” says Kubi Ackerman, the exhibition’s guest curator and the director of MCNY’s Future City Lab. “The age-old dynamic of urban versus rural plays out most significantly in New York. In addition to the fact that it has always been a city with majority immigrant and first-generation Americans. It adds that additional dimension.”

The 1890 census was particularly momentous: That year, the entire country was surveyed and mapped, and the federal government switched to tabulation machines. New York City’s mayor at the time disputed the census’s counts for the city—about 1.5 million people—which was a loss of 40,000 residents from the previous census and 85,000 fewer people than the Department of Health’s population estimate for the year. Some officials found fault with the Federal census’s methods, arguing that taking the count during the hot summer months meant fewer New Yorkers were in the city.

City Hall decided to conduct its own count using police officers to tally residents. The “Police census,” as it’s referred to, placed the city’s population at 1.7 million. But its results were also questioned, with some newspaper editorials calling it a “partisan enumeration” and claiming it was riddled with fraud due to political incentives to increase the numbers. At the same time, nearly 40,000 immigrants entered New York City each month, which likely contributed to the higher count. In the end, the city was unable to get a federal recount and the 1.5 million number remained the official census count.

Undercounts remained an issue throughout the 20th century. In the 1980s, a number of states and cities, including New York City, sued the U.S. Department of Commerce to prevent an undercount for the 1990 census, asking for new methodologies to account for the large immigrant communities that are typically undercounted. Mayor Ed Koch called the census a “form of statistical grand larceny” referring to the loss of federal funding due to an undercount in the 1980 census. City officials contended that it missed as many as 800,000 people.

More recently, the issue of undercounts has become more problematic. Julie Menin, director of the New York City Census, a city-specific initiative established by Mayor Bill de Blasio this year to ensure as accurate a count as possible, points to 2010 as a notable year. The citywide response rate to questionnaires was just 61.9 percent, while response rates in some areas of the city—like pockets of Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant—hovered around 30 percent due, in part, to residents’ historic distrust of government.

“We can’t have that happen again,” Menin says. “There’s simply too much at stake. We’re fighting for our fair share of $675 billion dollars … We can’t let a failure to respond to affect the city’s future.”

New York state lost two congressional seats due to the 2010 census—and has lost seats after every census since 1950.

An illustrated diagram of NYC showing peaks and valleys based on population distribution
“Population Lines,” a data visualization by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti, explores the densities of New York City neighborhoods.
Courtesy James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti

Just as the city is fighting to improve response rates to census questionnaires, the federal government is undermining the ability to achieve a fair and accurate count by proposing a citizenship question for the 2020 census, which negatively affects areas with large immigrant populations, like New York City. The Supreme Court blocked the question from appearing on the census, but the proposition has already caused damage. “The whole attempt to ask the question was an insidious attempt to cause fear and intimidation,” Menin says.

But New York is hoping to improve its response rates by changing its public outreach strategy for the 2020 census, with a $40 million budget to do so. This time, it’s focusing on the federal dollars at stake.

“I think one of the interesting things to note about the census is that the funding piece has really not been front and center,” Menin says. “I firmly believe that we had an abysmal response rate in 2000 and 2010 because the messaging was the federal government saying ‘It’s your civic duty’ instead of saying your local school or your senior center or your head start program will lose funding. That’s the messaging we’re doing now.”

MCNY’s exhibition and its public programming—like a December 3 panel with New York City’s chief demographer, Joseph Salvo, who speaks about the census’s history and significance in the above video MCNY commissioned for the exhibition—is part of this larger strategy to demystify the census and get people excited about participating in it.

In addition to presenting a history of the census, the exhibition presents visualizations by artists who have used data to better understand the city as a whole, like Ekene Ijeoma’s “Wage Islands” sculpture that depicts the city’s income inequality problems. Artists Pedro Cruz, John Wihbey, Avni Ghael, and Felipe Shibuya tracked the history of immigration to New York in their animated piece, “A Simulated Dendrochronology of New York,” which charts the different countries from where the city’s immigrants come over time. In 2020, there are plans to install kiosks where visitors can fill out their questionnaires.

“We see [census] participation as a civic duty, on par with voting,” Ackerman says. “But I think the opportunity of this exhibition is to get across the sense that it’s a lot more than an ‘eat your vegetables’ kind of thing. There’s an opportunity to contribute to the richness of city life.”

Fill out the 2020 Census here. The questionnaire takes less than five minutes to complete and does not ask citizenship questions.