As a nation, we are just beginning to come to grips with this country’s greatest sin: the enslavement of black people. Sure, we’ve taught partial histories in our classrooms, erected statues in honor of civil rights heroes, and even passed meaningful legislation that recognizes, and, in some instances, helps ameliorate the consequences of slavery. But only recently have we begun to have honest and public discussions about how the country benefited (and continues to benefit) on the backs of the enslaved.
It is in that spirit that I want to discuss another relic of the past that still rears its ugly head today. As many of us know, in 1787, the Framers came to a “compromise” that allowed slaves to be counted as “three-fifths” a person for purposes of taxation and representation in Congress. This “compromise” became a clause in the U.S. Constitution and gave slave-holding states in the South outsized political representation and power for an entire century.
More members of Congress and electors in the Electoral College (without slaves having the power themselves to vote, of course) gave these states power over the speakership, presidency and, by extension, the U.S. Supreme Court — and it was all based on how we counted the population.
Today, we have neither slavery nor constitutional protection for that compromise, but we still count our population, every 10 years, for the purposes of tax allocation and political representation. And we should all be horrified that centuries later, black people are still being undercounted. By a lot.
Take Brooklyn. Eighty percent of Brooklynites live in hard-to-count neighborhoods, and according to the Brooklyn Community Foundation, in 2010, Brooklyn had the lowest mail return rate in the country among counties with populations of 500,000 or more.
Of the 500 census tracts most at-risk of an undercount in New York state, almost half are located in Brooklyn. A state-appointed commission recently confirmed this risk, writing that “New York City has the highest percentage of at-risk populations for eight of the 10 metrics” and that “[T]he communities at the greatest risk of being undercounted warrant the greatest strategic focus by the State.”
Back in March, the state Legislature agreed to direct $20 million in funds to census outreach efforts. Yet 230 days since those funds were allocated and 40 days since the state’s commission issued its census funding recommendations, those funds are nowhere to be found.
With only four months until the census begins, none of the money that we authorized for census outreach has been released. The community groups who are in most need of those funds and who are most equipped to effectively spread awareness about the census are being left high and dry.
It appears that in 2019, more than 200 years after the three-fifths “compromise,” we are in grave danger of repeating our shameful history and undercounting black people, not in the antebellum South, but right here in New York.
This is not just a matter of principle. The census is a life or death issue for many in our community: The 2010 census determined $34 billion in annual Medicaid funds, $2.5 billion in Section 8 vouchers, $220 million for the school breakfast fund, and so much more. Among other negative effects, an undercount would deprive people of shelter, food and healthcare.
Not only would an undercount harm our communities directly, New York could lose our ability to advocate for ourselves at the federal level. We stand to lose up to two congressional seats if we are undercounted in 2020.
In September, I wrote a joint letter with 33 other Brooklyn elected officials demanding that Cuomo’s office release the census outreach funds, and today we are renewing that call. If our state is to respect the full humanity of New York’s black population, if we are to affirm that, literally, they count, then our census funds must be released.