Princeton YMCA census drive targets hard-to-count populations while combating food insecurity

Employees and volunteers at the Princeton Family YMCA loaded 120 boxes of fresh produce into trucks on a recent Monday afternoon and drove door to door, delivering them to local families in need. Along with the fruits and vegetables, the households also received Spanish and English flyers about the 2020 U.S. census.

The food delivery was the first in a new weekly program, organized by the YMCA in conjunction with Princeton Community Housing, which will continue through June 29.

When the Princeton Family YMCA began working on its campaign to promote high levels of participation in the 2020 census back in the winter, CEO Kate Bech envisioned in-person information sessions with computer access and translators. Since the COVID-19 outbreak in New Jersey, the YMCA has pivoted to focus on programs that can be conducted at a social distance while combating food insecurity at the same time.

The Y’s “Hard To Count” initiative and “Know Your Rights” information campaign were both temporarily on hold when the organization was forced to close its downtown Princeton building and lay off the majority of its staff in the spring after the coronavirus outbreak.

“Our plate was full for the last eight weeks. We really have to regroup now,” Bech said. She hopes to continue finding creative means to distribute census information in addition to the weekly food distributions.

Hard-to-count populations are defined as “those for whom a real or perceived barrier exists to full and representative inclusion in the data collection process,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This includes young children, people who are hard to locate or contact, such as individuals experiencing homelessness, and people facing cultural misunderstanding, language, or literacy barriers.

Bech said the YMCA’s existing relationships with households that are hard to count and its deep roots in the Princeton community made it well-suited to run a census campaign. The campaign is funded by a grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation.

Census data is used to distribute federal dollars to states, enforce voting rights and civil rights legislation, apportion representation among states, draw congressional and state legislative districts, and support planning efforts of government, business, and nonprofit entities.

In April, the Census Bureau mailed paper questionnaires to homes that had not yet responded online or by phone. From July 1 through Sept. 3, census takers will work with universities, senior centers, prisons and other facilities to make sure everyone is counted. From Aug.11 through Oct. 31, census takers will go door to door and interview people in households where residents have not responded to the census. In December, the Census Bureau will deliver apportionment counts to Congress.

The census has historically undercounted black and Hispanic populations, and overcounted non-Hispanic whites, costing minority communities millions of dollars.

“The town comes with a lot of prestige, but there are a lot of pockets of people who aren’t being reached and aren’t being counted,” said Mike Rosborough, Princeton YMCA project director. “Those pockets add up to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of resources for undercounted populations. It’s really about making sure they have a voice.”

Undocumented immigrants have expressed fears that filling out the form will lead to the police or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement scrutiny. These fears were compounded when the Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question to the census in 2018. The effort was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court last June. Critics said the question was an attempt to skew the census results in favor of Republicans.

Although the 2020 census does not contain a citizenship question, surveys show that the fear of retaliation remains for many Latinos. This year’s census could be the worst undercount of black and Latino people in the U.S. since 1990, according to a study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Dual-language flyers distributed in the YMCA’s deliveries specified that the census does not ask for a social security number, citizenship status, or whether the individual has a legal right to be in this country. The census does not pair an individual’s data with the address or name, and census officials are legally bound to keep all personal information confidential.

“Princeton needs to make sure everyone is counted,” Bech said. “It’s critical for accessing resources that will make the community stronger.”