The 2020 decennial census is closer than you think. A snapshot of the nation is required to make your voice heard in government, regardless of your age, nationality, or ability. With the census count start date inching upon us, the government affairs division of the multifaceted Chazaq Organization took upon itself to coordinate a kickoff luncheon of Queens Jewish leaders to discuss tactics for the NYC Census 2020 agenda. Speakers pinpointed the need to ensure that the community is fully included, as funding and resources are allocated based on the accounted number of residents for healthcare, accessibility services, and more.

During the summer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced Chazaq as an initial choice for a community-based organization to lead the cause of helping the city obtain a complete and accurate count. Chazaq has the unique ability to reach into hard-to-count communities, and was awarded a $75,000 grant to lead this challenge. The self-response rate ten years ago was ten percent below the national average according to David Aronov, the lead organizer for the Queens NYC Census office. Chazaq has been tasked to offer training, organize message development, and focus group coordination along with other planning and capacity-building resources to lay the groundwork for our community’s get-out-the-count efforts. “This infusion of funding will ensure that front-line groups in the hardest-to-count neighborhoods have the resources they need to encourage every New Yorker to complete the census,” said Johnson.

Attendees came to the luncheon to gain knowledge to educate those under their care. Phil Belkin, President of the Young Israel of Forest Hills, noted, “We want to know how to care for our worshippers and guide them through the census process.” Chazaq CEO Rabbi Yaniv Meirov introduced Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld at the helm of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills who explained that “we must train our people to respond in strong numbers to the census and guarantee fair representation and funding from our elected officials.”

Councilmember Rory Lancman reiterated Rabbi Schonfeld’s words, stressing that “participation in the census is important, especially when the districts get redrawn. We must ensure that our community gets the full representation it deserves and is entitled to, along with the resources and services that we are paying taxes to fund. A lot of the programs that originate from Washington, as well as city and state governments, are billed and based on the census numbers. The government needs to know how many people are in your community to decide how much money to allocate to each community’s needs, services, and benefits.”

Other community leaders who participated in the forum included Rabbi Nasirov of Bet El, Rabbi Chaim Schauder of YTM, Rabbi Yaakov Lonner of YCQ, Rabbi Aminov of Briarwood, Rabbi Hayim Schwartz of RSA, Avi Weinberg from the Queens Borough President’s office, QJCC board member and Jamaica Estates resident Zev Berman, community advisor Alan Sherman, and community activist Abe Fuchs.

In his expressive remarks, David Aronov gave further detail: “It takes ten minutes to respond to ten questions that determine the shape of our community for the next ten years; this is basically the span of an elementary school.”

Aronov then gave insight on his divisions spending: “Constituents will see a local ethnic media campaign that includes print media to make the census’ message clear to each community.” His team also engages the city’s 350,000-strong workforce to trickle down the message of the need to partake in the census.

A special division is in place to ensure that faith-based communities are accounted. Nancy Pastel, its lead, said, “We will work to make sure the Jewish community responds, but one should realize that children 0-5 years old are most critical to count, as the census covers a ten-year span.” Aronov also revealed a fascinating concept: “The information you record on the form does not become public for 72 years. You are making your mark in history to show where you lived many years down the road.” Moshe Brandsdorfer of the JCCRP, who resides in Far Rockaway, Queens, noted that “we work with all Jewish communities to motivate and educate residents on the importance of the census.”

Those gathered heard from Jeff Kohn, the NAB liaison. He explained that the Neighborhood Advisory Board distributes Community Service Block Grants based on poverty levels determined by the census. Since the last census, poverty numbers have increased by 20 percent in our general area, including Hillcrest and Briarwood, but to date no other Jewish members are on this board. There is $15.5 million to deliver to organization-based programs and services with $167,000 that will be prioritized by the board for three years.

Gabriel Spiewak, Manager of Data Analytics at Met Council, told of his efforts to deliver a complete count for hard-to-count populations like low-income and ethnic regions. Aron Cyperstein of Met Council point-blank stated, “The more people counted, the more police by our community centers, shuls, and schools; fill out the census and then complain.”

Local resident Manny Behar talked of the census 20 years ago, where shuls nationwide held a “Census Shabbos” for public discussion. He requested that the leaders choose either Shabbos Sh’kalim or Shabbos Ki Sisa as those Torah readings speak about the biblical census referring to machatzis ha’shekel.

Rabbi Yosef Benyaminov of Beth Bechor in Briarwood asked everyone to connect with their friends and neighbors on an emotional level to solicit a response.

Mark Laster, a member of Community Board 6, was appointed by then Queens Borough President Melinda Katz to the Queens Complete Count Committee to assist the most culturally diverse US county to have every resident counted. “We must integrate the census into all community functions, and each shul must include its importance in their newsletters,” mentioned Laster.

Dovid Abramchayev, a Rego Park resident and member of the Beth Jacob synagogue, who joined Chazaq’s census team, explained, “I will be educating and informing as a leading voice for involvement in my community to ensure all our neighbors fill out the census.” David Freedman, another Chazaq worker, put it very simply: “I am trying to do the right thing and help out where it is needed most.”

Joli Golden, the Partnership Specialist for the Jewish community from the NY Regional 2020 Census Center, explained that she has been charged with energizing and motivating the trusted voices in the community to make sure we have a complete and accurate count. She highlighted that the census can be trusted as a safe and easy process. “More people counted leads to more money for our counties and fair representation. Last census, we lost two congressional delegates to Florida, lessening New Yorkers’ voice in Congress. The census is both safe and protected by Title 13 that not even the Patriot Act can override. It does not allow for ICE, Homeland Security, the Department of Buildings, or even your landlord to access the information. This means that immigrant communities are safe, as the Census Bureau only produces statistics and does not share personally identifiable information to other government agencies. Census workers swore their first day in office to protect the information that they are entrusted with, and can face a fine of up to $250,000 and be put in federal prison for up to five years for breaching that trust. The census is going digital, meaning that they can correspond with their colleagues in real-time and be aware of areas of low self-response. This also allows houses of worship and community centers to intervene and provide extra encouragement. The census must be completed only once in the location that you live most often. So, if you live seven months in Florida but feel that you are a true Queens resident, you are still a Floridian. A roommate, a couch surfer, or even a long-term visitor from Israel is still counted, even if they are not related to you.” Long-term care facilities, dormitories, and group quarters facilities are counted by their administrators. If you have friends or family living in these areas, do not count them as part of your family as they are living elsewhere during the count.

Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov of Kehilat Sephardim in KGH passionately imparted, “It is vital for an immigrant community to be represented and receive their life-sustaining services.”

New York hit a climax of 45 congressional delegation seats during the 1933 to 1953 census years. A decade ago, NYC lost two congressional delegates and the Empire State is on track to again lose another two, based on recent population trends. In a staggering release, New York lost 48,510 residents between July of 2017 and July of 2018, the most in any state. This monumental disaster can be diverted if 19,648 people are added, according to industry experts. There are 435 possible congressional seats all divided based on population. New York remains the fourth largest state with 19.49 million residents, while New York City’s population hovers around 8.4 million.

Other states also on track to lose one congressional seat include: Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia. States like Texas and Florida are forecast to each gain two seats, while Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon are tracking to gain one.

At the meeting held at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, leaders gained much introspection. Since Thomas Jefferson directed the first census in 1790, based upon a mandate in the United States Constitution, every ten years a count is held. Everyone counts just one time in the calculation of the census in order to ascertain fair representation and reapportion the House of Representatives’ 435 congressional seats. Then, redistricting will be sent to each state by March 31, 2021, where the school, congressional, and state legislative districts are redrawn, accounting for population shifts. Federal funding, grants, and support to states, counties, and communities amounting to roughly $675 billion annually are allocated to libraries, schools, hospitals, roads, public works, and public transportation. SNAP benefits are not funded but are based on the census figures; Medicare, Medicaid, needy family temporary assistance, and other important programming are based on the census’ results.

In an effort to make census-taking straightforward, online technology will be used for the first time ever. This will allow fewer follow-up visits based on data submitted by the public, and an accurate address list will be formulated. All field operations will be completely automated, keeping residents’ information safe and secure.

Arthur Horowitz, a financial representative from the local TD Bank branch, detailed, “Many institutions use our branch’s services, and I came to the forum to learn of the community’s pressing needs.”

Completing one’s civic duty of partaking in the mandatory census is quite uncomplicated, from a simple phone call, online or mailing questionnaire, to speaking with an in-person representative. As the time approaches, an invitation to join will arrive from a postal worker or, in rarities, from a census worker. The online platform is designed with accessibility features for the disabled. Large-print and Braille guides for the handful of questions are available for easy printing. For those with hearing loss, use a telephone device for hearing impaired and take advantage of the video guides in American Sign Language and the films and webcasts with both open and closed captioning. A census taker knowledgeable in American Sign Language can also make a home visit.

The first invitations will go out between March 12 and 20, followed by a reminder between March 16 and 24. If your home has yet to respond, another reminder will go out between March 26 and April 3, followed by a paper questionnaire between April 8 and 16. A final reminder will be issued between April 20 and 27 when a census worker will then be dispatched to follow up in person. If you are not home, the census worker has permission to ask your neighbor how many people live in the home; if they are not home, an estimate might be used from previous counts. Home visits will continue into July. In order to spread out the overwhelming number of online replies, the distribution will occur over a few days to alleviate website issues and phone assistance. An overnight homeless count is also being conducted on March 31. Census takers are hired at $28 per hour to work locally for 10-40 hours a week, and the timing is flexible. Pay is weekly, and it does not affect SNAP, transit, or Medicaid benefits. All in all, participation in the census is our way to share in the democracy of America and proudly proclaim that “You count!”

Residents often question how the data is put into use. The truth remains that many community initiatives from our legislator, quality-of-life, and consumer advocacy all stem from the census totals. A business will use census data to choose a location for their factory, office, and stores to help create jobs; local governments change emergency preparedness measures and general public safety procedures based on the census. Major infrastructure decisions, including where a real estate developer will build new homes or revitalize an old neighborhood, stem from the census count.

Inhabitants are wary to partake in the census as they are concerned about immigration authorities and being ejected from a country they have grown to call home. First and foremost, your rights are protected in that it is illegal for the Census Bureau to release your census responses in any manner that identifies you personally or your household. As a citizen, your responses are simply calculated to procure a statistic and can never be used against you. Moreover, the data will not be used to allot government benefits or decide personal eligibility for any services.

So, what exactly will you be asked on the census questionnaire? Names are compiled to ensure that each member is not forgotten and that clear statistics are determined. Everyone’s associated gender is asked to ensure fair and equitable services that are planned and funded for the various government policies, regulations, laws, and programs. Age and date of birth are questioned to present data by age and to understand the size and characteristics of the different age groups. Local, state, and federal agencies plan and fund programming based on age groups like: children, working-age adults, women of child-bearing age, or seniors. The data collected helps combat age discrimination throughout society. Anti-discrimination provisions are watched, based on the ethnic data collected, referencing origins of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish individuals and by specifically asking about race. You will be asked if you reside or visit a location to ensure that you are only counted once based on your residence on Census Day, April 1, 2020, at 11:00 a.m. The question of relationship refers to a central figure of each household. This information helps to configure estimates about families, households, and groups to plan and fund such programming and services for single parent homes, grandparents caring for grandchildren, and other such initiatives. There will be a question reflective of the number of people who live or stay at the dwelling, and a follow-up asking for additional names to ultimately define the exact number of people at each given address in the US. Homeownership and renter statistics both serve as a gauge of the nation’s overall economy and where housing programs might be beneficial. The phone number request is not meant for official tracking; rather, it is to contact the home if any queries arise based upon responses. Your phone number will not be shared and will only be used by authorized Census Bureau workers.

Yisrael Peskowitz, community relations and development director for Chazaq, thanked the leaders for attending and noted that “Chazaq is honored to be chosen for this great responsibility and takes pride in being part of making sure that every single person in our city is counted.”

 By Shabsie Saphirstein