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How Catholic Charities set the Highest Bar for Census Outreach

people sitting in a field volunteering
By Jim Sliney Jr.

What do Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lin Manuel Miranda, Stan Lee and Alex Rodriguez all have in common? They all come from the northern Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood. When you think of the Washington Heights and Inwood you might think of Revolutionary War history at Fort Tryon Park, the Little Red Lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge spanning the Hudson River, or the Cloisters branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, back in the 1980s Washington Heights and Inwood were at the heart of the crack cocaine epidemic and considered one of the most dangerous places in New York City. But that, as they say, is history now. Major crimes in the neighborhood fell 83% since 2010, but economic opportunity is still a problem with median household incomes falling below the regional and national averages. So, a gem, but not without its challenges.

SETTING THE STANDARD FOR OUTREACH

What these neighborhoods don’t make you think about (unless you’re a Census hawk) is the mail-in response rates of the 2010 Census.

Looking at the map of hard to count (HTC) areas in the New York City region, you can see major issues in Yonkers, much of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, even over in Jersey City and Newark. But in northern Manhattan, like a lamp lighting the way, Washington Heights and Inwood had THE highest census mail-in rates in all greater New York City in the 2010 Census.

Catholic Charities of New York, and, in particular, Eddie Silverio, the youth services director at Alianza Dominicana (an agency of Catholic Charities) made that possible. Eddie has been working on censuses since 1990.

Eddie and the local citizens he mobilized blanketed the neighborhoods with the message that the census needed to be filled out. The work was hard. Traditionally, poorer neighborhoods with high immigrant populations are undercounted. But Alianza, right in the heart of Washington Heights, rose to the challenge, entering shops and businesses, talking with people on the street and being good-willed ambassadors until filling out the Census became a proud movement throughout the neighborhood.

THE NEW CHALLENGE

Since 2010, quite recently in fact, there has been some mixed messaging about trusting people from the federal government knocking at the door. Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center, told the New York Times, “Local organizations working on immigration rights issues have been communicating to the local residents that if government officials comes to your door, don’t open the door. Or if the government tries asking for information, be very skeptical,” he said. “That’s an understandable response. But now, the message has to be just the opposite.”

So, what will be done differently this year? Julie Menin, director of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s census outreach effort, told the Times that she cites Washington Heights and Inwood “as a model in every forum that I do.”

The challenge will be rebuilding trust in federal workers, but Catholic Charities is ready. They will be leading job fairs in the near future to help get people hired as Census workers, they will also be upholding their tradition of close partnership with city and local government to promote the Census. Oh, and of course, there’s Eddie. He hasn’t gone anywhere.

CATHOLIC CHARITIES IS UP FOR THE CHALLENGE

We’ve been doing this a long time. Since 1917, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York has been supporting New Yorkers in need by: 

  • Protecting & Nurturing Children & Youth
  • Feeding the Hungry & Sheltering the Homeless
  • Strengthening Families & Resolving Crises
  • Supporting the Physically & Emotionally Challenged
  • Welcoming & Integrating Immigrants & Refugees

Catholic Charities’ history begins with the War of 1812 and the Civil War that left thousands of children orphaned and abandoned. Catholic groups stepped in, becoming the largest caretakers of children in need. The network of Catholic Charities has not rested since.