New Haven is getting an early start on ensuring the city counts every resident in the upcoming decennial census — which won’t be an easy feat.
The quest began Tuesday afternoon and evening as about 50 people gathered in the Hall of Records to learn about the importance of getting people to participate in the 2020 census. They also learned about the many challenges to preventing an undercount and started brainstorming solutions to those barriers.
The census kick-off event was organized by City Plan staffers who in the intervening years between population surveys partners with the census bureau to gather information. Director Mike Piscitelli said the department has discovered about 1,400 new address in the Elm City since the last census.
So what’s new? The census is going digital, with people able to complete the survey from a computer or smartphone for the first time in U.S. history.
Another first for the census: The survey might ask about citizenship, depending on what the U.S. Supreme Court decides about a Trump administration proposal to that effect.
Those two changes add new challenges to reaching people who are already hard to reach.
“According to the census bureau, more than half of the census tracks in New Haven have a predicted mail non-response rate of over 30 percent,” Mayor Toni Harp said during the three-hour kick-off event at the Hall of Records.
“Those groups who are most at risk of being undercounted include low-income households, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, young children, and those who do not live in traditional housing situations.”
She said a failure to get an accurate count of all those groups “can deprive these very communities of fair representation and vital resources. For that reason, it’s imperative that we start working together now to ensure every New Haven resident is counted.”
Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said New Haven is the first city that she was aware of in the state that has begun to organize an early effort to ensure a complete count for the 2020 census.
“I commend you for that,” she said. “The census is critical to Connecticut because our state receives more than $8 billion that is tied to our census numbers in Connecticut.”
Census numbers are used to divvy up federal dollars in decisions about community block grants, food stamps, education funding, economic development. It’s also used by states to redraw political districts which impact U.S. Congressional representation as well as state legislative and local alder representation.
The lieutenant governor said Connecticut is one of nine states that has lost population in the last five years. It is the third least-reliant state on federal aid, ranking 48th. The only states that receive less federal aid are Virginia and North Dakota.
Bysiewicz said to make sure that the state holds on to what it does get, everybody must be counted.
“The mayor alluded to the New Haven situation where you have some places in the city where it’s harder to count,” she said. “In our state, 22 percent of our population live in hard to count areas, and those are places where the mail return rate is 73 percent.
“We’re going to have to put in some extra effort and that’s where all of you come in, we want everyone to participate.”
DataHaven’s Mark Abraham and Josephine Ankrah laid out some specific challenges for New Haven’s complete count efforts and provided the stats to back those challenges up.
The neighborhoods in the city that didn’t send back a big chunk of their census forms 10 years ago are Fair Haven, Newhallville and Edgewood, they said.
“There are very diverse populations that live in those neighborhoods,” Ankrah said. “It’s important to target that.”
Abraham said it will be important for the complete count committee to target families with children, particularly those headed by single parents.
“There are 50,000 heads of households in New Haven, and only about a quarter are households that live with their children, which means they’re either married and don’t have children yet or they’re living alone,” he said. “But there are 12,500 households that do live with children. The majority are not married-couple families. They’re headed by a single parent.”
Abraham said 2 percent of all the households, or about 1,000, are headed by a single father. About 6,200 households are headed by a single mom. The city also has about 1,000 families are headed by a grandparent with primary responsibility for grandchildren.
“It might sound like a small number, but in those households, there are 40,000 children at risk of being undercounted,” he said.
Ankrah said other low-income people who often are hard to count include immigrants and people with limited English proficiency. In New Haven, one in three adults speak languages other than English at home, which works out to about 40,000 people. Abraham said three-quarters of those people speak Spanish at home.
“If you think about those adults who don’t speak English at home, about 15,000 report that they don’t speak English very well. So they have some challenges understanding/reading English, or they don’t speak it well and can have trouble interacting with the census,” he said.
People who rent or move often or live in crowded or multifamily homes are also hard to count, according to Ankrah.
“In New Haven, about three-quarters of all households are renter-occupied,” she said. “Also, interestingly about half of renters moved in the last two to three years, so there is a chance of them being missed while they’re moving. “
Abraham said one silver lining is that most people in New Haven use the Internet. The bad news is that most people don’t have reliable access at home and have to rely on a smartphone or public access at places like libraries. He noted there is a big digital divide in the city. In Westville, nearly 100 percent of households have not only Internet access but high-speed service at home, he said. But in Newhallville, the Hill, and Fair Haven, less than half of households have it.
Working in small groups, those who stuck around for the entire meeting — a diehard group of about 20 — were challenged by meeting facilitator Elizabeth Nearing to use what they’d learned and what they know about the city to start hammering out how to reach all of their neighbors.
They also thought of groups who might not be represented by any specific data point, such as those who don’t identify as male or female, the apathetic, and those who live in households with mixed immigration status and where children are more English proficient than their parents.
One suggestion: Pushing out census information through schools and educating children about the census so they can tell their parents to participate.
Another group looked at reaching people who are victims of domestic violence through shelters, counseling centers, and the school system. Many of the ideas centered around outreach efforts that put the information where undercounted groups are likely to be and providing it in ways that would be easy for them to understand.
Caprice Taylor Mendez, strategic program manager for the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, noted that regardless of what the Supreme Court decides about the citizenship question, outreach efforts will have to address the fear that surrounds it.
The meeting drew praise from U.S. Census Bureau Regional Director Jeff Behler, who heads up the New York regional office.
“What you’re doing now is spot on,” he told the group. “This is exactly the right time to do this.”
He encouraged everyone to help the census bureau recruit local managers who will run the New Haven office and field workers who will hit the doors at every address whose occupants doesn’t fill out the census online or by mail.
Will Ginsberg, president and CEO of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, formerly served as chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is home to the census bureau, during a contentious 1990 undercount that had huge financial and political ramifications.
Ginsberg said the stakes are just as big today because census data will be used to make “public and private decisions literally every day” for the decade after the survey is taken.
He said New Haven’s participation in the census will go a long way in defining itself through the people who are counted within its borders.
“This isn’t just about money,” he said. “It’s not just about resources. It’s about who we are as a community. We are a community that believes every person counts. That every person contributes ... regardless of citizenship status, regardless of whether they’re documented or not.
“Every resident contributes to our community and is part of it and we need to treat them as part of it and we need to count them as part of it,” he added. “In the most fundamental way, this complete count effort really reflects our commitment as a community to the basic idea of inclusion and our rejection of the basic idea of exclusion.”