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Nonprofits and neighborhoods threatened by census undercount

April 11, 2019

This piece was first published in Crain’s New York Business

(New York, NY)—More than a third of the nearly 92,000 nonprofits across New York are headquartered in New York City. They rely not only on private support but government funding to provide vital services and programs—and much public funding is determined by population census count numbers.

A severe undercount in the 2020 census would jeopardize the very existence of many nonprofits, causing them to cut staff, end programs, and cripple their ability to connect with underserved communities. Twenty billion dollars a year for New York City alone is on the line.

Nonprofits know what’s at stake: funding for critical programs that meet needs the government isn’t addressing. A Community Resource Exchange survey found that nonprofits fear they will be forced to reassess how to effectively meet needs if they have to scale back, particularly given that they already operate on budgets stretched thin by years of government underfunding.

We are at serious risk of a 2020 undercount because of the late start in funding outreach efforts, a proposed citizenship question and a push to conduct the count online, which would miss many people who lack reliable internet access. This would build on the decade of under-investment we’ve just seen as a result of the last census. In 2010, only about 62% of New Yorkers completed census forms (the national return rate was 76%).

Nonprofits are dedicated to the city’s most critical issues, including homelessness, hunger, health, criminal justice and much more. But they’re also businesses, and if they cannot function sustainably, their service work will become ineffective or disappear. A severe undercount would diminish not only our city and state’s political power but a decade of funding, public services, and infrastructure.

Together, our elected leaders and agency heads must ensure a significant financial investment in the organizations and people best positioned to get an accurate count of the people in our city today. Nonprofits’ long-term presence in these neighborhoods can serve as a valuable, trusted conduit to achieving an accurate count, as illustrated by a Quinnipiac poll noting that New Yorkers would be more likely to participate when contacted by a local nonprofit.

While $20 million recently allocated in the state budget for census outreach and education is a start, it has come late and is insufficient to cover the cost required to do appropriate outreach. Many groups will need to work hard to ensure outreach is successful over the next year, and will need more support to do so.

What happens if we don’t get an accurate count? These organizations that society relies on will not be able to meet the needs of the communities they serve. Government will have fewer nonprofit partners with the capacity to meet needs, and vulnerable populations—families, children, our neighbors—will not have the supports and resources they need. This will also pose a greater financial strain on the city and the state.

In the end, this is not just about good business sense. It is about common sense: By investing more fully in the nonprofit sector, New Yorkers everywhere will be better off and this will be a stronger place in which to work, live, and thrive.

Katie Leonberger is the president and CEO of Community Resource Exchange.