Top NYC Demographer Says Census Faces Multiple Threats

MANHATTAN (CN) – At Day 2 of a trial over the 2020 census, which is set for the first time in decades to include a citizenship question, New York City’s chief demographer testified Tuesday that such a change would harm social services that benefit everyone.

“The citizenship question is likely to compromise self-response,” Department of City Planning director Joe Salvo said today. “I think that is pretty much agreed upon by all parties.”

Salvo had been referring to findings by the Census Bureau’s chief scientist John Abowd that the survey as revised by Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross would degrade the quality of the count.

Leading a coalition of 18 attorneys general and five civil rights groups, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s lawsuit claims this was Ross’s true goal: to depress participation from immigrants of color who traditionally vote Democratic in order to reduce political power where they live.

A four-census veteran who served on the National Academy of Science’s Committee on National Statistics, Salvo described how an undercount would affect cities providing social services like education, health care, language instruction and even the distribution of the Yellow Pages, the popular telephone books.

“You end up with a census that is manufactured in ways that compromise accuracy and compromise the count,” he said.

New York City suffered from a bad census count during the 2010 survey, which reported a 46 percent spike in vacant housing in bustling neighborhoods like Astoria, Jackson Heights, Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge.

“These are not neighborhoods that are experiencing any sort of abandonment,” he noted. “This reeks of a bad map.”

In the wake of this bad count, Salvo said, the Health Department asked him to fix the numbers because the agency could not otherwise evaluate diseases.

Together with his colleague Arun Peter Lobo, Salvo criticized the 2010 survey in article titled “Misclassifying New York’s Hidden Units as Vacant,” published in the peer-reviewed journal “Population.”

Beyond the citizenship question, Salvo warned that the Census Bureau instituted other changes under the Trump administration that threaten to exacerbate the conditions that led to that bad count.

The Washington Post reported that the bureau would stop hiring noncitizens to serve as “enumerators,” the government workers who visit households that do not respond to the surveys.

Citing this reported ban, Salvo testified that the bureau has hired noncitizen enumerators in the past to transcend cultural and language barriers in the communities they visit.

“It’s on the ground,” the demographer testified. “You’ve gotta go, and you gotta look.”

“We go full-tilt,” he added.

The human element of the count also made Salvo question the Census Bureau’s increasing reliance on administrative records to verify their counts in the face of budget cuts.

When Los Angeles, California, and Harris County, Texas, tested this approach, Salvo said that 20 percent of the units designated vacant were in fact occupied.

“None of this will help, pure and simple,” Salvo said. “We’re heading in the wrong direction.”

Another trend that Salvo found troubling was a reliance of census enumerators relying on interviews with landlords, who often undercount their tenants to mask issues of over-occupancy and building code violations.

Salvo emphasized the challenge of building trust with communities that exist “under the radar” to have an accurate count.

“We are the city of New York,” Salvo said, describing these conversations. “We’ve got your back. We’re going to help you stand up for who you are.”

The Constitution’s enumeration clause mandates a count of residents, not citizens, to allocate federal resources where they are needed.

Even Commerce Department does not dispute that noncitizens deserve to be counted, but Ross testified to Congress earlier this year that he added the citizenship question to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. District Jesse Furman, who is hearing the case without a jury, found that his testimony appeared to be “false” and made in bad faith. He will decide whether the Commerce Department’s change to the census violates the Administrative Procedures Act’s safeguards against arbitrary and capricious government action and the Fifth Amendment’s due process protections.

Statistician Hermann Habermann, who spent five years as the Census Bureau’s chief operating officer, rounded off the second day of trial with testimony about his 22-page expert report on the need for an unbiased census.

“Statistics are trusted when the agencies that produce the data are seen as making decisions based on professional not political considerations,” he wrote in that report.

The Supreme Court stopped scrutiny into Ross’s political machinations by temporarily blocking his deposition before trial. It is unclear whether the New York attorney general’s office will seek to compel his testimony. But evidence uncovered before trial showed that the Trump cabinet official met with anti-immigration hardliners like former White House strategist Steve Bannon and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Kansas voters will decide today whether to give Kobach a promotion to governor, where polls show him in a razor-thin race with Democrat Laura Kelly.

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