Every 10 years, the federal government strives to count every person living in the country, which has long been a challenge for the U.S. Census Bureau. Predictions are that the 2020 census will be no different, as tens of thousands of enumerators prepare to count the more than 325 million people living in the U.S.
Nassau County Legislator Carrié Solages, who will host a census job fair in Elmont, said he was worried that growing distrust in the government and fears about the citizenship question have made residents wary of taking part in the census, and urged Elmont residents to become census takers.
“We want all our community leaders to get involved in the census,” he said. “If residents are met with people they know, who also speak their language, then they’re more likely to respond.”
Count them all
The census is a snapshot of the U.S. population that determines how congressional seats are divided and how more than $600 billion of federal and state funds are allocated, and it serves as a source of information for businesses, schools, researchers and journalists. Although the Census Bureau sends out forms via mail and email for households to fill out and send back, census officials estimated that nearly 40 percent of the 2020 count will be recorded by door-to-door enumerators.
The enumerators bring greater accuracy to the count, interviewing families that did not respond by mail.
The Census Bureau hires local residents to count their communities, as they are more familiar with the neighborhoods and have an easier time getting people to respond to the census. Those who speak more than one language are especially valuable, according to the bureau. Enumerators who lived outside communities that are being counted have traditionally tended to have poor communication with local residents, officials said.
“The one thing that keeps me up at night is the one thing I have less control over, and that’s our ability to recruit and hire,” Al Fontenot, U.S. Census Bureau associate director of decennial programs, said in a news brief about the bureau’s local hiring practices.
Undercounts in the census can lead to shifts in the U.S. House of Representatives, underpin changes to state legislative districts, city councils and school boards, and change where billions of dollars for social services and aid are sent.
To avoid inaccuracies and ensure that every person is counted, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran this year formed a Complete Count Committee earlier this year, comprising more than 30 non-profit, labor, faith-based and community organizations that work will together to overcome barriers to a full count.
“It cannot be overstated how important it is to all residents in Nassau County that we are fully counted in next year’s census,” Curran said. “An undercount means less money for our schools, our roads, our law enforcement and so much more.”
Elmont, hard to count
In March, Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman urged Elmont residents to take part in the census, noting that minority-majority communities are often listed as hard-to-count, returning, on average, 60 percent of census forms. Enumerators’ counting can make a difference in such communities, officials said, which is why Schnirman is teaming up with Solages to hold the census job fair at the Elmont Memorial Library on July 30.
“Counting more than a million Nassau residents is a huge effort, so we want to make sure people know that these important census jobs are available and have been organizing pop-up job fairs in communities around the county,” Schnirman said. “One of the ways to help people understand that it’s important to be counted in the census and feel comfortable responding, is having people from their own communities going door to door, helping explain how it all works.”
Jacob Model, a census expert and vice president of the tech company Community Connect Labs, warned that when the Census Bureau cannot find local, qualified candidates, the agency lowers its hiring standards. “In practice, this will translate to enumerators who are not local, do not speak local languages and scored poorly on their assessments,” Model wrote in his recent report on the upcoming 2020 Census.
He added that less-qualified enumerators could hand in incomplete forms, mark whole households as vacant lots and even “undercount vulnerable populations, such as children.” Solages also said he fears that areas like Elmont and North Valley Stream might be undercounted if local residents do not get involved in the census, and said he would work with the county to continue job fairs and presentations in these areas.
“We will continue to engage our immigrant communities, and all of our hard-to-count communities early to educate, assure and motivate them to be counted,” Curran said. “Long Island residents know that we send more in tax dollars to Albany and Washington, D.C. than we get back in funding. We simply cannot afford an undercount.”
The comptroller’s office released a report on the upcoming census, while Curran and other local elected officials held a news conference about their census count efforts on Tuesday, after the Herald went to press.