Census Numbers: Calling Jackson Heights

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, John Mollenkopf, Director of the Center for Urban Research and Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the CUNY, discussed what the census results reveal about Queens.

Released yesterday, New York City's census numbers are as interesting for what they tell us as for what they don't.

For starters, a five percent drop in the African American population highlights a longstanding trend of black flight that the census doesn't always reflect. John Mollenkopf explained that the financial crisis may have something to do with the noticeable change.

This continues the trend of past decades; the decline of the African American population in the past has been offset by immigration from the West Indies and Africa. Evidently, the economic crisis of the last part of the decade was associated with the slowing of migration from many places, but those two in particular I think. As a result, immigration didn't offset the decline of the native born [black] population, which has been aging, suburbanizing, and retiring to North Carolina.

There was also a decline in the number of people claiming to be mixed or multiracial, which Mollenkopf said could be attributed to a growing desire for more well-defined ethnic or cultural identities. That's another factor that might contribute to the lower-than-usual numbers for African Americans in New York; those with mixed racial backgrounds may not be reporting as black.

"There are a lot of black Latinos and people from the Dominican Republic or Panama or wherever," Mollenkopf said, "so it's a fine art deciding which category they fall in, and both sides can claim them."

More troubling to demographic researchers—and to Mayor Bloomberg—are the general numbers for Queens and Brooklyn. According to 2010 data, Staten Island experienced the most growth since 2000, followed by the Bronx and Manhattan. But Brooklyn and Queens experienced inconsistent, sluggish growth; the former's population increased by 1.6 percent, while the latter's increased by a mere 1/10th of one percent. That's low enough for the Mayor to publicly question the census' accuracy.

Looking for some help to unpack those numbers, Brian Lehrer asked for callers from the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights. Missy, a census worker, was able to provide some explanation for why the borough's population total might be artificially low.

I personally didn't have that much trouble counting but I did experience resistance with the immigrant population. There are a lot of Hispanic people where I live and I don't speak Spanish that well, so sometimes I had to get a native speaker to help me. Sometimes they just wouldn't answer the questions or open the door. I'm sure my colleagues experienced that as well, so I would imagine that there's an undercount.

A large immigrant population, either distrustful of government or perhaps living here illegally, raises hurdles to census data collection. It may be that Queens and Brooklyn did experience more substantial growth, but the numbers only reflect the people who agreed to fill out the form.

John Mollenkopf said that was certainly an issue, especially in one of the most diverse locales in the United States. However, he said it's not a problem that the Census Bureau is blind to: The government has been taking steps to peel back the anxiety immigrant communities may feel when confronted with documentation.

There are five factors that the census used to project hard to count places in advance of the 2000 census...Where you have a lot of families living in not strictly legal situations, maybe single men crowded in a basement apartment or something like that, people are understandably reluctant. Then you've got language issues, some people coming from countries where there's just skepticism of government and not wanting to be involved with anything official...But the census this time I think went further than ever before to try to cope with those problems and sponsor community organizations to do outreach and to keep track of how progress was going and put extra resources into areas where they were falling short of expectations.

Be sure to explore WNYC's interactive census results maps for Queens and the entire region below!