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Another Voice: Libraries need funding to ensure a fair census count

By Sarah Potwin

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has presented his budget for fiscal year 2019-20. As executive library director of the Niagara Falls Public Library, I have strong concerns that New York State libraries in our hometowns are not funded to properly support the federal 2020 census count, hurting Western New Yorkers.

The 2020 census is to be the first count of  America's population that is to be conducted primarily online. I, along with many librarians in the state, are concerned about the accuracy of population counts, particularly for rural and high poverty communities and city neighborhoods, without statewide funding to help libraries provide online services to New Yorkers who lack home internet services.

Twenty-five percent of households who earn less than $50,000  annually have been historically undercounted; 99 percent of the state’s "hard to count" communities are within five miles of a library.

An estimate of one of every five New Yorkers' households, or 1.5 million people statewide, will not be counted accurately. The Census Bureau’s goal of receiving over half the data results online serves to merely highlight the digital divide. Those without internet access or digital skills must not be disenfranchised from the constitutionally mandated counting of every person living in the United States.

The New York Library Association and library advocates across the state are fearful of a repeat of the 2010 census — the undercounting of New Yorkers costing our state billions of federal dollars in funding for education, health care, and infrastructure improvements. In addition to a loss of funding, our state’s congressional and Electoral College representation could be threatened by an undercount. Due to an undercount in 2010, two congressional seats were lost. Because the state is not prepared for an online count in 2020, we could have a repeat of 2010.

An estimate of  $40 million in state funding would provide upgraded technology and computer access, and a secure network in which to facilitate counting of these typically hard-to-count populations such as low-income families, people living in transient conditions, people of color, the elderly, the disabled and people whose native tongue is not English.

Every library should have at least one computer on a secure network for the purpose of census taking. Library staff will need to be trained properly to give technical guidance to those who have limited or no computer skills, while offering a safe and accessible location for all those needing assistance filling out census forms.

I urge Gov. Cuomo to consider the impact of an incorrect count of New York citizens, and I ask fellow Western New Yorkers to contact their state representative to include library funding in the state budget. An accurate and fair census count is owed to all our citizens.

Sarah Potwin is the executive library director of the Niagara Falls Public Library.

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