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State’s Complete Count Commission Knows NJ Can’t Afford a Sloppy Census

But there are daunting challenges ahead, like making sure hard-to-count populations — such as undocumented immigrants and the urban poor — participate fully in 2020 Census

census map

New Jersey is in the process of setting up a committee whose mission is to ensure the most accurate count of residents in the 2020 U.S. Census.

On the line are billions of dollars in federal funding and the number of representatives New Jersey gets to send to Congress, as well as the boundaries of state legislative districts, all of which are determined by the decennial census count.

The New Jersey Complete Count Commission, signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy two weeks ago, will be a 27-member body that includes Murphy, the party leaders in both the state Senate and the Assembly, two Latino and two black lawmakers, cabinet officials, municipal and county representatives, business officials, and several leaders of minority and nonprofit organizations. Members will come from different regions of the state and no more than 14 can hail from one political party.

Census officials are urging the creation of state and local commissions to help increase awareness of and participation in the count.

“Because federal funds, grants, and support to states, counties and communities are based on population totals and breakdowns by sex, age, race, and other factors, communities benefit the most when the census counts everyone,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), who co-sponsored the legislation (A-4208) creating the commission. “Ensuring full participation and avoiding undercounting helps communities get their fair share of the more than $675 billion per year in federal funds spent on schools, hospitals, roads, public works, and other vital programs,” she added.

Undercounting or over?

The Census Bureau estimates that in 2010 it missed counting 31,000 New Jersey residents, or less than four-tenths of 1 percent of the total population. But figuring in the margin of error, that undercount could have been as high as 181,100 people — or the census might have overcounted the state’s population by as much as 119,000. The current state population is estimated at just over 9 million. Of particular concern are neighborhoods considered hard to count. These are census tracts — geographic areas of between 2,500 and 8,000 people that may coincide with municipal borders or span multiple town boundaries — where fewer than 73 percent of people answered the 2010 census. New Jersey had nearly 500 hard-to-count tracts in the most recent census, and they were located in all but three counties — Hunterdon, Sussex, and Warren. The state’s hard-to-count areas are home to more than half of New Jersey’s African-Americans, 40 percent of Hispanics, and 21 percent of Asians. Many are in cities like Newark, Camden, and Paterson.

“This commission will help to ensure that traditionally undercounted populations, especially those in minority communities, will have a voice in the census,” said Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex), another co-sponsor of the commission. “It is tremendously important that the state and the commission ensure that federal resources are allocated equitably to the communities that need them the most.”

Counting the hard-to-count

An important part of the commission’s work will be figuring out how to get hard-to-count populations to respond to the survey. These groups include African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, non-native English speakers, the indigent, the homeless, college students, young children, seniors citizens, people displaced by natural disasters, the incarcerated, and members of the LGBTQ community. In particular, the outreach strategy will focus on making sure that immigrant populations understand the confidentiality of the census survey as well as the importance of completing it regardless of their citizenship status.

The upcoming census has been mired in controversy because of its intention to ask everyone’s citizenship status, the first time such a question has appeared on a decennial survey in more than a half century. Democrats and a number of advocates say asking citizenship status, particularly during the current climate in which federal immigration agents have stepped up efforts to deport undocumented immigrants, is likely to reduce participation in the census. That will hurt states like New Jersey, which have large immigrant populations. New Jersey, New York, and several other states have filed a lawsuit seeking to keep the citizenship question off the 2020 Census.

New Jersey lost a House representative following the most recent census because its population is growing at a slower rate than that of other states. Currently, the state has 12 members of the House, three fewer than 35 years ago.

The George Washington Institute of Public Policy calculated that the $17.6 billion in federal assistance received by state government, schools, and individuals in New Jersey came from the 16 largest programs that distribute funds based on the census. These include Medicaid and Medicare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps, and highway planning and construction funding.

“When New Jersey residents are not counted, the state loses funding and influence,” notes a policy brief from The Fund for New Jersey, which advocated for a commission and is calling for the state to adequately fund the commission’s work and to help ensure that census responses are secure and not shared with immigration enforcement officials.

Inclusive outreach programs

The commission’s work will include the establishment and support of school-based outreach programs and partnerships with nonprofit community-based organizations and a multilingual, multimedia campaign designed to ensure an accurate and complete population count.

In crafting its strategy, the commission will seek input from experts and solicit comments at three hearings, one in each section of the state. The commission will be located in and receive support from the office of the secretary of state. Secretary Tahesha Way will appoint several of the members and serve as the commission’s chair.

The commission will be working on a tight timeline. Its members are to be appointed within the next three weeks and the commission is to hold its first meeting no later than a month after its membership is set. It is to present an interim report to the governor and the Legislature within six months of its organizational meeting and a final report by June 30, 2019, specifying its recommended outreach strategy.

It’s unclear how much this effort will cost. The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services said there will be expenses both for the commission to do its work and for its outreach strategy, but these are impossible to determine because the legislation sets no limit on potential costs.

“The OLS notes, however, that a multilingual, multicultural, multimedia campaign could cost in the millions of dollars, depending on the extent of the campaign, specifically with regard to primetime television advertisements,” according to the fiscal note prepared for the bill.

In advocating for a complete count commission, The Fund for New Jersey urged the state to follow California’s lead and spend $1 per person, or about $9 million over the next two years. Its policy brief contends “the return on investment is likely to be high,” citing California’s estimate that $2 million spent on community address canvassing will yield at least $100 million in annual federal funds. The organization also maintains a page with extensive information about hard-to-count communities. (The Fund for New Jersey helps fund NJ Spotlight.)

Spending any amount could have significant impact. The Fund’s brief states that, “Historically, New Jersey has made only minimal efforts to have its residents counted. The state’s 2010 effort was largely internal with no specific state budget allocation, and New Jersey’s overall mail-in rate for census questionnaires actually fell to 74% in 2010 from 76% in 2000. In contrast, states that invested in census 2010 saw increased response rates, which is a critical component of achieving a fair and full count.”

New Jersey’s commission would, under the law just signed, seem to end a bit prematurely. Both Census officials and The Fund envision the commission’s work continuing through the actual conducting of the Census, which is officially April 1, 2020. A large part of the effort is ensuring that people are filling out their surveys. But the commission is set to expire January 1, 2020.

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