Opinion

In the Midst of COVID-19, Here’s How New York City Is Revamping Its Census Strategy

New York City is indeed the epicenter of COVID-19, but our city’s story is one of resilience and strength. You can see that in the way our city’s health care workers have heroically responded and the way that New Yorkers are rallying around them during this unprecedented crisis.

You can also see it in the quick, 10-minute action that everyday New Yorkers are taking to ensure our city receives its fair share of funding for hospitals, health care, schools and so many vital services. That action is responding to the 2020 census. As we continue to see the impact of COVID-19 on our health care system, schools, transportation systems, and more, the mission of the census is more critical than ever.

The census determines whether our communities receive their fair share of hundreds of billions distributed by the federal government every year for important programs and services. This includes critical funding for the health care system, including for children’s health insurance programs, hospitals and more. The census is also how we get the foundational data that public health experts at every level of government use to plan for and manage situations like COVID-19. It is therefore critical that this data is complete and accurate – and that’s only possible if every single household participates in the census. Simply put: We can’t afford to not respond.

Because the 2020 census already faced enormous, unprecedented challenges, ranging from constant and virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from Washington, to the protracted fight around the citizenship question, and to it being the first census to be conducted online, the City of New York started preparing last year. Together, the de Blasio administration and the New York City Council have invested $40 million in the nation’s largest and first-ever municipal Complete Count Campaign, which has been working for months with thousands of New Yorkers to get the city informed, organized, and ready to respond, the idea behind the campaign being: with an infusion of resources, coordination, and planning, we can put community organizing on overdrive to get out the count.

And then the news of COVID hit – on the very same day that the census went live.

Needless to say, a wrench was thrown into many of our efforts. Despite not being able to canvass the streets and convene the people in this new era of stay-at-home social distancing and communication-via-conference call, we remain undeterred – and we’re responding.

Over the course of this campaign, we built an infrastructure that was designed to power-boost on our on-the-ground community organizing efforts with the latest technologies, including large-scale peer-to-peer texting and phone-banking platforms. This infrastructure is now being leveraged to enable us to reach our fellow New Yorkers directly, even in a time of crisis. In fact, just last week, as part of our first citywide “Text Out the Count” operation, we reached nearly 1 million New Yorkers directly via our texting service, which was used by more than 700 volunteers right from their own homes. We had direct, one-on-one, back-and-forth conversation with more than 116,000 of these New Yorkers, just like we might have had at the local school or house of worship right around this time. Of these, more than 35,000 confirmed for us that they’d completed the 2020 Census, and approximately 5,000 shared with us that they planned to complete it (many even sent us screenshots of having submitted their forms!).

We have made this technology available to all 157 of our Complete Count Fund awardees – nonprofits on the front lines of advocacy, organizing, and service delivery in New York City – and are working closely with them to tailor our texting efforts by language, neighborhood and more, to ensure that we are reaching New Yorkers in ways that are linguistically and culturally competent, especially at a time when there is so much fear and confusion in New Yorkers’ hearts and minds.

That’s not all. With subway ridership down 87 percent, we’ve also pivoted quickly to re-allocate the large majority of our subway advertising buy – which was slated to be one of the largest ever by the City – towards even more digital, radio, and television advertising that we know is going to be critical to reach New Yorkers at this time. No matter where you live in New York City or what language you speak, you’re going to be seeing or hearing an ad from us. Those platforms were always a big part of our plan, and now, they are even more so. This move will also further allow us to be as nimble as possible in terms of re-directing advertising dollars to reach New Yorkers in neighborhoods with low self-response rates (reported daily by the Census Bureau), further aiding our ability to be responsive to realities on the ground.

Those realities include this: While the Census Bureau has taken some positive steps to delay the start of the door-knocking period to the end of May and extend the overall census period by two weeks, much more needs to be done, which is why Mayor Bill de Blasio has called on extending the census period until at least Sept. 30 of this year. Because of the high level of uncertainty around the door-knocking operations to the existing challenges such an operation faced in New York City, we have been and remain laser-focused on ensuring that New Yorkers are responding online or by phone right away. The census is just 10 simple questions which can be answered in just a few minutes, and New Yorkers who lack internet access or need additional language assistance can participate by calling a unique phone number for any one of 12 different languages.

While New York City is on the front lines in the battle against COVID and is experiencing a crisis unlike any other experienced in generations, we remain resilient and committed to fighting for ourselves both in the present moment and for the future of our city.

Julie Menin is the director of NYC Census 2020.

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