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Census citizenship question causes controversy in New York

A small box on the upcoming U.S. Census has created a big stir in New York and other cities throughout the country.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Commerce Department said it will ask participants about their citizenship status in the 2020 survey. Some New Yorkers worry this will hinder participation and lead to a severe undercount that would jeopardize the city’s political pull.

More than a dozen states have threatened to sue President Donald J. Trump’s administration for the inclusion of the question, which was last seen in the 1950 census.

Congressmember Adriano Espaillat, who represents Upper Manhattan and parts of the Bronx, said the citizenship question would severely hurt the city’s diverse population.

“If you put this citizenship question on the application, it will send a chilling effect out there and it will hurt a city like New York, which is a very diverse city,” Espaillat said. “It will drive them underground, they will not respond, they will not open that door, and we will have a severe undercount.”

During an Association for a Better New York breakfast discussing the 2020 census, the city’s chief demographer and director of the population division at the Department of City Planning Joseph Salvo explained the impact that the census has on its residents.

“Like it or not, the census bureau creates reality in a way,” Salvo said. “The statistics that come out of the census become the reality that is used for all kinds of things.

“This reality is frankly something that we have to live with after the census is taken for 10 years and those of us who deal with data know what can happen if that reality does not match what’s on the ground.”

New York’s population has been undercounted in at least the last three census counts, Salvo explained. In 1990, the count was nearly 250,000 short. In 2000, the city only hit the 8 million mark after it corrected the bureau’s initial count, which missed 13 percent of the housing stock. Similarly, in 2010, the city found 197,000 addresses that were overlooked by the census bureau.

Salvo said undercounts would result in fewer congressional seats and a possible reduction in funding from programs backed by the federal government.

“We have to basically convince people that not only that is it safe to answer the census, it’s in our interest to answer the census,” Salvo said. “And if they don’t answer the census, they’re going to hurt the city and themselves.”

The chief demographer said the best strategy to engage more residents in the census was to make things personal.

Salvo said connecting the census to the government funding that funnels into city and state programs, such as special education programs, healthcare centers for underserved communities and even mundane road repairs on bridges and highways.

“You have to link everyday experiences to the census,” Salvo said. “If you have a child that is going for some kind of special education program and you indicate that could be at risk, that is a serious personal issue. Only then people will be compelled.”

While the inclusion of a citizenship question threatens participation, city politicians and real estate industry leaders are pushing back against it.

Real Estate Board of New York President John Banks, who has been advocating for accurate census data in recent weeks, expressed concern with citizenship component. With the city’s population growing at the fastest rate in 50 years, he said it’s crucial that everyone in the five boroughs is counted.

“Understanding who lives in our city, and where, is essential to maintaining New York’s status as the greatest city in the world,” Banks said. “Our city, state, and nation need a robust, accurate census and we are concerned that including questions on citizenship will jeopardize this critically important task.”

Carlo Scissura, head of the New York Building Congress, shares the same sentiment.

“It is essential that every New Yorker is accounted for in the census, and we are concerned about anything that would suppress participation,” Scissura said. “New York depends on its fair share of funding from the federal government for services and infrastructure its residents need, and an accurate census is a critical part of the process.”

Facing the prospect of losing representation and federal funding if their large undocumented resident populations go underreported, New York and several Democrat-controlled states are mounting a legal challenge against the inclusion of a citizenship question.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman accused the Trump Administration of targeting blue states that voted against the president in 2016 while rewarding his supporters. However, several Republican states, including Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona, would also likely have populations undercounted in their major cities.

Mayor Bill de Blasio threw his support behind Schneiderman’s lawsuit, accusing the White House’s “unprecedented move to politicize the census.”

“A fair and accurate 2020 count is constitutionally mandated to ensure political power and resources remain with the people – where they belong,” de Blasio said. “President Trump’s decision puts our amazing city of immigrants in jeopardy and threatens federal funding for infrastructure, health care and public safety in New York.”

Kyle Campbell contributed to this report.

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