Spring 2020 Faculty interview: Dr. John Mollenkopf

Dr. John Mollenkopf is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, directs the Center for Urban Research, and chairs the public policy subfield in political science. His research uses New York City as a case study to investigate immigrant political incorporation, urban politics, and the formation of governing coalitions.

Laura Silverman: The Center for Urban Research has embarked on several initiatives to address hard-to-count areas for the 2020 Census. Could you describe those initiatives? What sort of impact do you think CUNY and The Center for Urban Research will have on this year’s Census?
John Mollenkopf: The CUNY Mapping Service has produced a critically important resource for the 2020 Census, a national “hard to count” interactive map, that contains a wealth of information to enable local governments and grassroots organizations to ensure a full count.  Many localities are using it to shape their organizing around the Census, which begins in mid-March, and it has also received widespread attention from the press. The map will soon include daily reports from the Census on how the count is progressing, enabling them to adjust their efforts in real time.  We are also advising the city’s Census 2020 office and assisting CUNY to manage the $19 million in grants made to community organizations to bring about a full count.
LS: What kinds of federal funding, services, and political representation do under-counted populations stand to lose? How do you predict the change from mail to internet counting will affect who is counted?
JM: Census numbers drive the allocation of House seats across states and the design of legislative districts within states. So the Census is fundamental to political representation, which in turn shapes budget decisions and resource allocation. Many federal funding flows are driven by population counts and demographics that depend on accurate measurement. Regions like New York City that have a lot of hard-to-count populations stand to lose quite a bit if they are not counted fully and accurately. Switching to online counting is a huge experiment with obvious challenges, including variation across groups in terms of broadband access and comfort with online submission; just think of elderly immigrants who neither have web access nor facility with English. The Census is trying to anticipate and respond to these problems and localities are making unprecedented efforts to overcome them, but some things are sure to go wrong.
LS: Do you think the recent efforts to push through a citizenship question on the census will contribute to problems around counting undocumented immigrants in the 2020 Census? How do you see the Census as a site of politics more broadly in the current political climate?
JM: The debate over the citizenship question has undoubtedly raised concerns in immigrant communities that are already skeptical about the federal government because of ICE raids, deportations, and entry restrictions of the Trump administration and the NSEERS program of the Bush administration. This does not just affect the undocumented, but all the immigrant communities in which they live. The Census is fundamental to our understanding of who we are as an American people or peoples, but it is also a focus of contending forces who would like to skew how we see ourselves – or diminish the influence of immigrant communities.
LS: How do you see the Census initiatives at CUR fitting into your work? How do you see your work as supporting these initiatives? 
JM: My work as a scholar and our policy-relevant work at the Center for Urban Research all aims ultimately to broaden access to opportunity and upward mobility, to make our politics more democratic and inclusive, and to shed light on the lives of those who have been ignored or excluded. It has a practical bent, wanting to understand how power actually works and how it could be made to work more equitably.