Opinion: Coming to our census

By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders

I must confess I do not much like filling our surveys or answering questionnaires. We all have busy lives with much to do and a lot to think about. However, the census material that is being sent out to every household this very week is very significant information to open and to read, and then to respond to the simple 10 questions. This is of critical importance to every New Yorker in particular. The stakes are very high for our city and state.

Every 10 years, the United States Constitution requires a tabulation of the total population of the nation, state by state, and community by community. The numbers that are yielded are not just interesting data, they are the basis for how much federal resources and political representation this state will receive relative to the rest of the nation. Ten years ago, we failed.

In 2010, only about 62% of all New Yorkers responded to the census questions. That compares unfavorably to the 76% response rate in the rest of the nation. That failure to respond has likely led to an undercount of persons living in New York State. The undercount has cost the State billions of dollars each year. A lower recorded population also impacts the number of Congressional seats that New York State is assigned and our strength in the Electoral College, which selects the President of the United States.

It is vitally important that New Yorkers not repeat that dismal showing again this go around. In baseball parlance, we need to step up to the plate!

Political veterans remember a time not so long ago when New York State was the powerhouse of the Electoral College with 45 electoral votes, far surpassing any other state in voting strength. But with the relative loss in population to other states, and an undercounting of the actual population, New York now has 29 electoral votes, which ties us with Florida for third place, well behind both California and Texas. This is no small thing since two of the last three Presidents (including the current one) were elected with a majority of electoral votes despite losing the actual national popular vote.

And currently New York State receives far less in federal revenue sharing aid than the aggregate taxes which we pay to the federal government. That means less money for education, hospitals, social services and roads, bridges and mass transit.

The Census Bureau reports that the counting will be conducted from mid-March through the end of July. This period is divided into two phases: The “self-response only” phase, and the “non-response follow up” phase. Within a few days from now, every household in the United States will receive a letter from the Census Bureau about how to reply electronically online or by phone. This is “the self-response only” phase. Later, the Census Bureau will send a paper form by mail to households which have not yet responded electronically. By mid-May officials from the Census Bureau will follow up with in person visits to households that have still not responded electronically or by ordinary mail.

If there is still no response then there will be an effort to gauge the count through other government records. But this is often inaccurate and inevitably results in an undercount. That is why maximizing the personal response rate is so critical.

The federal government distributes about $650 billion in federal aid to states each year. Currently New York gets much less than its proportionate share of that revenue based on what would be our actual population count if it was accurately counted. So when you receive your letter from the Census Bureau, do not throw is in trash. If you do, you will be throwing away money that our state and our city desperately needs and is entitled to.

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