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2020 census overcounted New Yorkers, Census Bureau says

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Larry Smith, center, and Phil Pandy, right, from the U.S. Census Bureau talk with Cristaliz Orozco at Frank Sedita Academy on Dec. 14, 2019.

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An unprecedented state campaign to promote the 2020 census appears to have paid off for New York: The federal government overcounted the state by nearly 700,000 people, according to data released last month by the Census Bureau.

The finding has no practical consequences for New Yorkers, since the initial population figures released last August inform the division of both federal funding and political representation. But it assuages some fears that a much-disrupted census would overlook many in the state – even as it leaves lingering questions about who the census may have under- or overcounted on the local level.

Unlike prior years, the Census Bureau is not expected to release county- or city-level results from its latest post-enumeration survey, an audit that essentially rechecks the count in thousands of sample locations. That makes it impossible to say that Buffalo was counted accurately, particularly given low response rates in many East and West Side census tracts. 

Citywide, only 54.7% of Buffalo households completed the census without further follow-up – down slightly from 2010, when nearly 58% did.

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"There's a large population of communities of color, refugees and immigrants alike that continue to be undercounted," said Wennie Chin, the director of civic engagement at the New York Immigration Coalition, which conducted census outreach in Western New York. “We’re still playing catch-up here. We’re not getting ahead of the game yet.”

Local and statewide civic organizations say they saw signs of progress, however, even before the latest census announcement. In 2019 and 2020, state and local officials, as well as state and local nonprofit groups, launched an unprecedented “complete count” campaign meant to publicize and demystify the census, particularly among populations it has historically missed. Those include immigrants, renters, young children, people living in poverty, people of color and Native Americans.

Both Erie County and the City of Buffalo convened teams of community groups, libraries, foundations and other institutions to partner on census outreach as part of a $20 million state initiative. A $3.6 million “census equity fund” also helped organizations like the New York Immigration Coalition hang fliers, run phone banks and host town halls about the census.

In Buffalo, the coalition even recorded get-out-the-count robocalls from Bills running back Taiwan Jones and offensive tackle Dion Dawkins, aiming them at 40,000 phone numbers in the city’s historically undercounted areas.

These types of efforts likely played a role in determining which states were over- or under-represented in the census population counts, the census consultant Steve Jost told the New York Times in May.

While there was neither a net undercount nor overcount on the national level, six states – Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas – were undercounted by between 2% and 5%. Only one of the five conducted a get-out-the-count campaign. In addition to New York, seven other states were overcounted, and all but one mounted a census promotion effort with state money.

But those campaigns did not reach everyone, census experts and advocates caution. The Census Bureau previously announced that, nationally, the 2020 census undercounted Black communities by 3.3% and Hispanic communities by 5%, a marked increase from 2010.

In Buffalo, neighborhoods with large populations of Black and Hispanic residents – such as the Lower West Side and Delavan-Grider – saw low census response rates again this cycle, despite outreach efforts. Only a third of residents responded in one section of Broadway-Fillmore.

“If you find communities where the self-response rate is over the national average, that’s a pretty good indicator for the quality of the data in that particular community,” said Diana Ellicott, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. According to the Census Bureau, the national average in 2020 was 67%.

Among other challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s controversial attempts to add a citizenship question to the census may have chilled response rates here, said Jeffrey M. Wice, a professor at New York Law School who specializes in redistricting and census law.

When representatives from the nonprofit community group Open Buffalo tabled outside Utica Station in the summer of 2020, they frequently fielded questions from city residents about whether their answers could be shared with landlords or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Executive Director Franchelle Parker.

“But we dedicated the time to having deeper conversations with people – more than handing them a flier, allowing them to walk off and expecting them to fill out the census at home,” Parker said.

“I think from my perspective, the level of partnership that happened during this census – I’ve never seen that before,” she added.

Buffalo's population growth outperformed other upstate cities – and more census takeaways

Advocates say they now hope to spend the next decade strengthening and building out the network they launched to support the 2020 census. An April evaluation of the statewide census equity fund, which ultimately issued grants to 120 organizations, found that 45% planned to collaborate on future get-out-the-count campaigns and other civic engagement projects.

By 2030, said Chin, of the New York Immigration Coalition, advocates hope to have built the on-the-ground infrastructure necessary to reach even more undercounted populations.

“For these historically undercounted communities, it’s going to take more than one census cycle to catch up,” she said.

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Caitlin is an enterprise reporter at The Buffalo News, covering stories about how Western New York is changing. A Buffalo native, she spent six years reporting for the finance and style desks at the Washington Post before returning home in 2018.

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