The US Census is causing quite a stir in Bushwick and Williamsburg, and all the forms haven’t even been counted yet.
On April 7, reports began circulating that Williamsburg had among the lowest Census return rate, at 31 percent, among major neighborhoods in New York City. Bushwick, in the early 40s, wasn’t much better, and Cypress Hills, in the high 20s, may have been the worst. Participation has inched up in the past couple of weeks, but Bushwick remains sub-60s; Cypress Hills trails below 50%. Nearby Ridgewood, Middle Village, and Maspeth in Queens have similarly low participation rates.
The narrative that dominated over the next week, capped by an NPR report, was that Williamsburg did poorly because bored hipsters weren’t interested in filling out the Census and couldn’t be bothered to do it.
That’s actually not the case.
Census worker Lauren, 25, happens to know the people in the NPR story, and is puzzled by their comments.
“I have no idea why they said that so many of their friends are being employed solely by the Census right now,” she said. She added that the Williamsburg numbers might be off because households with nine or more members are counted by phone, “so the larger families in that area may not have been processed yet.”
Erica Sackin at FreeWilliamsburg did her own research and provided a detailed explanation as to why some blocks filled out the forms at a better rate than other blocks, but it comes down to the fact that the poorest performance was on industrial blocks of Morgan Avenue and Grand Street (8 percent) in East Williamsburg, parts of South Williamsburg where new Central American immigrants are concentrated, and Hasidic South Williamsburg, where forms were mailed out in the middle of wait for it Passover. Expect a big push in the latter two communities over the next month to get those numbers up.
Bushwick is a different story.
One of the most poorly counted neighborhoods in the city in 2000, Bushwick had been a popular focal point this year for how well the Census has been organized. El Diario has zeroed in on Bushwick, following Annie Correal’s three-part Census series; WNYC ran an interview focusing on the undercount in Bushwick on March 15. Correal said Bushwick and Park Slope reported roughly the same population in the 2000 count, but that Bushwick in fact has as much as 30 percent more people, or 128,000 residents, according to a 2008 survey. This resulted in the two neighborhoods receiving a similar amount of services when Bushwick should have commanded more.
Bushwick has received a lot of Census attention, particularly due to State Senator Martin Dilan’s (D-Bushwick) position as Co-Chair of the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment.
Starting in December of last year, Dilan’s office has held a number of public meetings throughout Bushwick addressing the importance of the Census. In an op-ed in the Brooklyn Eagle, Dilan argues that an accurate count will help bring better health care and transportation services to the neighborhood, or at least prevent further cuts.
When BushwickBK spoke with Dilan’s community liaison Michael Olmeda in late March, he said that so far Bushwick was doing “pretty good,” ahead of Williamsburg and Cypress Hills for their projections for Census completions, particularly the public housing developments which are above the state average. Olmeda speculates there may now be as many as 200,000 people in Bushwick.
Community group Make the Road New York and service organization Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council have done much to “get the Census out.” However, the challenge remains counting Bushwick’s predominantly Spanish-speaking communities.
“We’re talking Dominican and South American communities. I include Mexican, Ecuadorian, Colombian, and Venezuelan,” said Olmeda. “They’re more afraid to open the door because some of them do not have legal status. They tend to shy away from anything that has government on it, though with groups like Make the Road, they’ve opened up more.”
For Jarrett Murphy, Print Editor for City Limits, the Census is a “pretty simple thing” as a basic tool for government to know how many people it is serving, but it has become a political football once every ten years.
Murphy, who wrote a report about Bushwick last year based on demographic data from 2000, is keeping his eye on the effects of the undercount and whether the Census will be effective at counting two groups of newcomers to the neighborhood.
“Two things are happening in the count. They are counting a larger population of Spanish-speaking immigrants and making a better effort to count them. The other wave of arrivals, college-educated somewhat more affluent youngish white people should certainly show up [in the data]. Those folks are more likely to fill out the Census.”
Murphy says the full extent of demographic change in Bushwick will not be known until people fill out supplemental phone surveys answering questions about median income levels, educational attainment, and commuting times. Chances are, all three categories have changed dramatically since 2000.
But some segments of Bushwick’s “youngish white” population may not be participating.
“I think there’s going to be some fear in the live/work buildings (if people are illegally living) which will definitely cause some undercounting,” said Laura Braslow of Arts in Bushwick, a champion of the neighborhood’s “creative community.” “In legal buildings, well, the issue of young and transient people is always present. But I do think there are some folks who are interested in civic engagement and ‘being counted’ and all that, even in loft buildings. But will there be an undercount? Definitely.” Braslow hopes more “creatives” respond to the Census so that their political clout can be noticed by office holders.
Lauren, of the Census, admits there has been reluctance on the part of some, mostly those wary of government “knowing their business.”
“I think a lot of people don’t fully appreciate that it’s really just a head count; no one’s getting in trouble on this one,” she said. “There are questionnaire assistance centers all over the place where you can come get help filling out the forms or to get a new one if you threw the mailed one out and have decided to be a better citizen.”
And citizens receive services, determined by government funding formulas. Appropriations for city services such as fire stations, police officers, bus lines, and schools are often based on the population that is counted. More people means more money for the neighborhood recent bus cuts may have been prevented if Bushwick’s population were more thoroughly accounted for.
“Assuming the state has money, it will stand you a better chance of getting these resources,” said Murphy. “The most practical way that it will affect you is in redistricting for congressional and legislative seats.”
The redistricting battle is coming in 2012, but the process begins at the end of this year once the Census numbers are in. Political observers estimate that New York could gain a congressional seat, though exactly where it would be located is dependant on how the population has shifted throughout the state.
State Senate seats would change too, as political observers have been predicting that a population shift that reflects growth in New York City and decline upstate and in Long Island would swing the balance in the Senate toward the Democrats.
Lauren reminds that North Brooklyn lost four billion dollars in federal funding in the last Census, “so there’s a huge push this year to get them in, and door-to-dooring will start in two weeks. It’s much easier on everyone to just pop yours in the mail now.”
If you haven’t received a form many tell BushwickBK they have not you can pick one up at locations throughout the neighborhood, including post offices, IS 347 at 35 Starr Street, Health Plus at 364 Knickerbocker Avenue, and Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow at 280 Wyckoff Avenue.