No Count, No Funds: Minorities in Bushwick Suffer the Consequences of a Census Undercount

Census workers recruit Bushwick residents to work in the count - Photo: Alex Vros/EDLP
Census workers recruit Bushwick residents to work in the count. (Photo: Alex Vros/EDLP)
This story originally appeared in El Diario/La Prensa under the title “Sin Contar, Sin Dinero,” as part of a three-part Census supplement. For more of Feet in 2 Worlds‘ special Census coverage, click here.

BROOKLYN, New York — Five months ago, Manuel Zuñiga went to the hospital for the incessant pain in his right hand. He was injured three years ago, not long after he arrived from Ecuador, in a construction accident. A circular saw cut through the tendons and bone in his hand, leaving one finger deformed and his arm stiff and in pain.

Zuñiga, who hasn’t been able to work in two years, didn’t find the help he needed at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in Bushwick.

“I spent a month going around in circles there,” he said. “The doctors told me they didn’t know what the problem was and they sent me to a physical therapist […] Finally they told  me, ‘We can’t help you here. If you want to, you can go to Manhattan.’”

Annie Correal appeared Monday on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show to discuss her story. Press play to listen:


Despite the fact that there are two hospitals in Bushwick, it’s not unusual for residents like Zuñiga to have to travel outside the neighborhood to get the medical care they need. Overburdened hospitals are one facet of a problem that plagues this neighborhood in Northern Brooklyn, which struggles from a lack of basic services to support its predominantly Hispanic population.

One reason for this is the low level of participation in the 2000 census. The government distributes funds annually to different districts based on their reported population. If a neighborhood’s population is not fully counted in the census, it can suffer from a shortage of funds for services and benefits and also a diminished representation in Congress.

In 2000, Bushwick was one of the most poorly counted areas in the city: along its southern edge, less than 40% of households mailed their forms back to the Census Bureau. Brooklyn was the borough in which the lowest proportion of residents took part in the Census, making it one of the hardest-to-count counties in the country.

Nadine Whitted, the district manager at Community Board 4, which represents Bushwick and Ridgewood, said Bushwick was “absolutely” affected by the undercount.

“Every time there’s an undercount, we don’t receive the services that we all need and everyone who’s here is in danger, whether we’re documented or undocumented, because we all have the same needs,” said Whitted, who identified fear of deportation as the biggest reason why immigrants refuse to fill out census forms in Bushwick.

In addition to hospitals and medical centers, services that depend on federal funding include schools, public housing, food stamps and transport and sanitation services.

One sign of how the undercount may have affected Bushwick is the lack of some public services. Bushwick has approximately the same number of publicly-funded facilities as the Brooklyn district that includes Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus and Red Hook, according to data from the city’s Department of Planning. In 2007-2008, the two districts had approximately the same number of preschool and extracurricular programs.

This appears to make sense, since in the 2000 census, the two districts reported the same population: around 104,000.  The problem is that in reality, the population in Bushwick is likely to be much higher. In 2008, there were 128,000 residents there, according to the American Community Survey, a population count undertaken by the Census Bureau the years when there’s no census. In Park Slope, on the other hand, the population is only slightly more than 113,000. In Bushwick, more than 51,000 people depended on some kind of public assistance, more than triple the number of people in the same situation in the other district.

It’s no coincidence that the poorest neighborhoods have the worst social services, according to Alvin Aviles, director of a local census office in Bushwick.

“Precisely because there was an undercount  in 2000, we are in desperate need of funding now,” he says. “When I talk to people about the importance of the census, I ask them, ‘How long did you have to wait in the waiting room at the Emergency Room or at the doctor?’ I try to underline that it’s a result of census data”, he added.

There was no comment from Woodhull Hospital, but the president of Wyckoff Hospital, Rajiv Garg, said his hospital is struggling to provide services not simply because of a lack of funding.

“The higher the unpaying population, the bigger the pressure on us to provide services,” he said. “The patients are less satisfied. The reality is, if you’re going to order a meal and order a dessert, the dessert piece is missing in our community. Equally, the hospitals in areas outside ours are not accessible to these people.”

Bushwick hospitals are overwhelmed not just because of the number of undocumented and uninsured patients, but because of the neighborhood’s lack of clinics or family health centers. Theo Oshiro, director of health programs at community organization Make the Road, says that as a result, people have to go to the hospitals, where they face waits of up to seven or eight hours for the emergency room and up to a month for a doctor’s visit.

“Like many minority communities across the country, Bushwick residents were undercounted in the 2000 Census,” Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez said. “A fair and equal count this year will ensure that our city’s diverse neighborhoods receive vital resources for schools, health care, job training and infrastructure.”

State Assemblyman Vito Lopez concurred, “I think there was an undercount in all the minority and Latino neighborhoods in 2000 and that we lost funds as a result. Whether that money would have made it here is another story,” he said, but added it was imperative for there to be a better count this year.

When it comes to counting Bushwick, it’s clear that the health of thousands lies in the balance.

“I’ve had this problem with my hand for five months,”  said Zuñiga, the Ecuadorian who now travels to Manhattan to see a doctor.

“After five months, they’re going to do the first tests to find out what the problem is. I’m in pain, and I’m not taking anything for it. What am I supposed to do?”

* Annie Correal is a reporter with El Diario/La Prensa. Alec Hamilton, from Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy, contributed reporting.

The Feet in Two Worlds project on the Census is made possible thanks to the generous support of the 2010 Census Outreach Initiative Fund at The New York Community Trust and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.

AboutAnnie Correal
Annie Correal is a reporter based in New York, where she has covered crime, immigration and breaking news for The New York Times and El Diario, and contributed radio pieces to WNYC, NPR and This American Life. She is working on a new, Spanish language storytelling podcast, Radio Ambulante ( scheduled to launch in 2012. Annie was born in Bogota and raised between California and Colombia.