With two months to go before the U.S. Census Bureau begins inviting residents to respond to the 2020 Census, government officials in Nassau and Suffolk counties, hundreds of organizations and a local philanthropic group are collaborating on a strategy to motivate Long Islanders to answer that call.
The once-a-decade census is mandated by the Constitution and affects the distribution of $675 billion annually in federal funding for a myriad of programs, as well as the number of each state's congressional representatives.
"People are going to start hearing from the Census Bureau in March," said Rebecca Sanin, who is coordinating Long Island's "Complete Count" effort.
Change is coming in the way people can interact with the census. For the first time, people will have three options: mail, phone or online.
Government and philanthropic organizations have money designated to educate and help the public with the census. New York plans to make $20 million available to localities — $15 million of which already has been earmarked for the state's 62 counties — as part of a $60 million campaign involving dozens of state agencies, public authorities and SUNY and CUNY, said Jack Sterne, press secretary for Empire State Development.
Long Island is poised to get $1.6 million of that money — just over $1.019 million for Suffolk and $664,109 for Nassau, Sterne said.
In addition, a philanthropic entity, The New York State Census Equity Fund, housed at the New York Community Trust, has distributed nearly $2 million to nonprofits across the state, including Long Island. And the Census Bureau this month started a $500 million public education and outreach campaign.
"Census Day is April 1, and the census [response] is going to go through August … so we have to do everything in our power to make sure people are ready and are excited, because we've created a culture of momentum to get people to complete the 2020 Census," Sanin said at a People of Color subcommittee meeting at her office earlier this month.
Sanin is president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a nonprofit that advocates for and assists poor and vulnerable people, as well as the agencies that help them.
That subcommittee — one of 11 — is planning far-reaching census outreach campaigns, from media ads to encourage people to apply for census taker jobs, to enlisting local colleges and universities, fraternities and sororities, even barber shops and hair salons for help.
Tracey Edwards, Long Island regional director of the NAACP, who is a member of the People of Color subcommittee, called barbershops and hair salons "key influencers, because we all know that when you go to the barber shop and hair salon, lots of stuff gets talked about in there. And they are our unsung community leaders," which brought a chorus of agreement from nearly 20 subcommittee members gathered in a conference room in the Huntington Station office of the Health and Welfare Council.
Other subcommittees are targeting other groups, such as immigrants.
"We have built a census army of over 300 organizations that include business leaders, education leaders, faith-based leaders and associations, nonprofits. It's a multi-stakeholder army," Sanin said in a later interview.
According to census data, Suffolk and Nassau are ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, of the hardest-to-count counties in the state because of a high proportion of groups that are typically undercounted: minorities, children under age 5, and immigrants.
"Census Ambassadors" from local groups are crucial.
"They are the trusted messengers in the communities," Vanessa Baird-Streeter, Suffolk's assistant deputy county executive, said in an interview. That's why we've been working with them for the past year, making sure everyone is up to speed, understanding the importance of the census.
"Now you need boots on the ground," added Baird-Streeter, who also participated in the People of Color subcommittee meeting.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in an interview: The "nonprofits are really our partners. We are relying on them to reassure people who might not trust government that it's incredibly important to be counted … We want to indicate to our community what's in it for them" to answer the census. "We could lose out on school dollars, SNAP benefits. We also could lose out on congressional representation."
New York lost two congressional seats after the 2010 census and now has 27.
Both Curran and Baird-Streeter noted their counties had updated the Census Bureau's master address lists with thousands of additional addresses in preparation of the count. The bureau accepted nearly 4,500 addresses in Nassau and 9,400 in Suffolk, they said.
Long Island officials are now waiting on the state to send the counties the application for census grants. Sterne, the Empire State Development press secretary, said in an emailed statement that the state's "Census Agencies," naming ESD and the departments of labor and state, "are working to finalize the funding process with counties for the $15 [million] for hard-to-count communities as quickly as possible."
Also involved in census efforts is the philanthropic community, which "really has kind of stepped in to try to help organizations across the state to raise awareness to try to get these historically undercounted populations to be counted and not be afraid to be counted," said Sol Marie Alfonso-Jones, senior program officer with the Long Island Community Foundation, an affiliate of the New York Community Trust.
Alfonso-Jones said $425,000 of the nearly $2 million census equity fund went to Long Island, with the LICF putting in an additional $25,000 for the establishment of complete count committees.
Baird-Streeter said Suffolk legislators have approved using the LICF as the conduit through which to distribute the state census grants to nonprofits, which also needs state approval. Curran said Nassau is "looking at the Suffolk model to see how, if and when we get the grant, we can best get it out to the groups."
WHAT'S AT STAKE IN 2020 CENSUS
- $675 billion annually in federal funds each year for many programs, including: Medicaid, Medicare Part B, Section 8 Housing Vouchers, Highway planning and construction, Special Education grants, Childhood Health Insurance Program, National School Lunch Program, Head Start/Early Head Start, and Foster Care.
- An undercount can mean programs are underfunded for people who need them, according to the Long Island Counts 2020 Census Report.
- Each state's congressional apportionment. New York lost two congressional seats after redistricting, based on the 2010 Census. New York now has 27 congressional representatives.