Mapping the Holes in the Census Count

The 2010 Census has begun – you should have already received your questionnaire. And if the 2000 census is any indication only 45% of us New Yorkers have sent it back. In the next few weeks, census workers will begin making house calls to try to gather data from non-responders and to seek out people with no fixed address or live in non-standard housing.

Steven Romalewski – familiar to Omnibus readers from his report on OASIS, the Open Accessible Space Information System, last September – is tackling the issue of undercounted populations with a new website that highlights regions that are likely to be undercounted and thus underrepresented. Hard to Count 2010 helps clarify both the logistical challenges of counting the third largest national population in the world (or about 4.5% of human beings) and shed light on who the winners and losers are under the current census system.

The map can be filtered according to various characteristics that hinder an accurate count, including prevalance of poverty, of rental units, of transient laborers and of language isolation. As his map shows, New York City’s high immigrant pool, high renter rate and high proportion of people depending on public assistance make the city’s count particularly difficult.  Perhaps as a similar measure to encourage participation, the Census Bureau is running its own live-feed interactive map highlighting the highest-response rate regions (Montana has already sent back 33% of its forms! New York’s Lyon’s Falls Village, population 591 (2000 census) already has a response rate of 70%!). What both maps show is that New York City is losing millions of dollars in funding to better counted communities.

Census workers may make up to six visits to individual homes before turning to neighbors to help fill in missing data. Through heavy regional advertising and community outreach, officials hope to fill in the holes of undercounted populations. But the measures are not always enough to combat the issues that arise in highly transient, non-English-speaking, or poorer populations that are hesitant to be counted by the government for a whole host of reasons.

Census information is completely confidential until 72 years after it’s documented, at which point it is released to the general public. As a court recently ruled, the Patriot Act cannot supersede the legal confidentiality of census data. This confidentiality, however, does have a history of being violated, such as the WW-II era use of census data to round up Japanese-Americans for internment in camps. But some question why individual data should be collected at all, and, wary of government control or surveillance, are demanding that the census return to its most literal constitutional interpretation, which directed marshals to count “the number of the inhabitants within their respective districts” with no regard to names or other data. Others are pushing for the use of statistical sampling to help estimate data for hard-to-count populations, an approach that would likely benefit dense urban areas. Census numbers, after all, determine how many seats each state holds in the House of Representatives and impact how and where some federal funding is distributed.

For more information on the census, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer is doing a series on the census called ‘Ten Questions That Count,’ examining a range of topics, including the reasons for its politicization, why New York is particularly susceptible to undercounting, myths regarding population trends and a look back at comedy pieces of censuses past. Last Wednesday’s show featured two Omnibus contributors, Steven Romalewski and Seema Agnani. Check out the podcast of Why New York Is Hard To Count on the WNYC website.

Because, don’t forget – we can’t move forward until we mail it back:



2 Responses to “Mapping the Holes in the Census Count”

  1. Tom says:

    Over the course of a 30 year architectural career in NYC, I have witnessed a broad assortment of living accommodations. After reading about the extraordinary efforts City Planning department is taking to up the census count (“New York’s Nooks are a Challenge to Census Takers”, NYTimes, 2/23/10), I thought of several conditions not covered in the article that will make the 2010 census continue to reflect a substantial NYC undercount based on the referenced experience.

    Structures not on streets –
    I had a client who wanted to “legalize” occupied apartment units on his property. They were two apartments housing a total of five people located in a separate garage on the site opening only to an interior alley (no street address, no mailbox). The incredulous look on my face triggered a “tour” of the area by the immigrant owner who assured me that he was “only doing what everyone else was doing.” And sure enough, block after block of these hidden structures (some no more than tool sheds) appeared to be housing people, not cars and lawn mowers as originally intended. These types of alleys are common in at least three boroughs.

    Below grade accommodation –
    Another client wanted to “fortify” the walls of an existing unit. The “unit” was located below a store and only accessible through a Bilco-type door from the dumpster yard (no address, nothing facing a street). A family of five was living in this grim, but inexplicably well appointed dwelling which included curtains as walls. The mother proudly told me that her three children were in school. This was located in what is known as a “taxpayers’ property – 2-3 story buildings with street level commercial overlay. Apparently, the staircase from the store to the basement gets closed off so that the below grade space can be separately rented. These types of properties are prevalent in four of the five boroughs.

    Commercial building dwellers –
    I personally knew someone living illegally on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center. She miraculously escaped on 9/11. To this day, she still lives illegally in a commercial building, albeit on a lower floor. A lone eccentric? Not according to the stories she tells me. Commercial building living is available in all boroughs.

    Empty building living –
    Due to enormous construction activity before the housing bust, combined with the current economic crisis, there is a plethora of empty buildings either abandoned due to lack of funding or empty due to lack of potential buyers or renters even when they have been recently built or renovated. On closer inspection, there are people occupying these spaces. Just a few weeks ago I was to scope out a potential project only to find the empty building full of squatters. These structures face the street and have addresses, but it is extremely doubtful that the occupants will fill out a census form. Assumed-to-be-vacant buildings exist in all boroughs.

    Campers –
    This is perhaps the saddest category, but one only needs to practice observance to see the increase of people living in their cars or campers. Typically this occurs in industrial areas and around parks and can be observed in every borough.

    Missing a 60 story apartment tower is quite dramatic, but these less glamorous situations are where the meaningful under count lies.

  2. Tom is absolutely correct. Let´s add many garages and storages in California. This last Census, I´m sorry to say, will never be accurate.

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