A year from now, Americans will be asked to provide the government with basic information about themselves — such as name, age, race and residency — in order to get the most accurate count of the population in the 2020 U.S. Census.
Because so much depends on this count, including political representation and federal funding, New Jersey officials will begin a major campaign today to get everyone involved. They want the public to understand the survey, its importance, and the fact that it cannot be used to penalize anyone.
Secretary of State Tahesha Way, who chairs the New Jersey Complete Count Commission will be traveling throughout the state to events highlighting the need for everyone to complete the 2020 census. The day begins with a press conference at City Hall in Jersey City at 9:30 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. with a rally at the Burlington County Lyceum in Mount Holly.
Why such fanfare over a government form?
The stakes are high, and changes to the census could to make it more difficult for New Jersey to get an accurate count. What’s more, advocates worry that not enough money has been earmarked for the campaign, which is getting started later than some other states. There is also concern about misinformation campaigns on social media.
Billions in federal funding on the line
On the line are potentially billions in federal funding and the number of representatives New Jersey gets to send to Congress, as well as the boundaries of state legislative districts. A higher population count could make the state eligible for more federal funding — currently it gets about $20 billion in aid for schools, health insurance, transportation infrastructure, housing, and food assistance — and could prevent the loss of another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, as happened in 2010.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, adviser to a coalition of foundations supporting an accurate count and a former staff director of the U.S. House census oversight subcommittee, outlined some of the potential roadblocks New Jersey may need to overcome to get the best count.
Census officials are, for the first time, conducting an online population count and trying to get people to respond via the internet. That could make those with low incomes, the elderly and others who either can’t afford or don’t feel comfortable with technology to decide not to fill out the survey.
“We have to let people know the Internet is not the only way to answer the census,” Lowenthal said. “They can do it over the phone or by mail.”
Lowenthal also warned of “disruptive disinformation campaigns” that are already being spread on certain parts of the internet. Census officials have been trying to buy up web addresses that those trying to undermine the count might use to try to spoof an official census address. They worry that certain groups, domestic and foreign, could try to scare people not to answer the questionnaire, downplay its importance or convince people they have already responded.
There is also the continuing animus against undocumented immigrants that advocates say even some legal immigrants feel. Many fear that answering the census will put them on the radar of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and lead to deportation. The possible inclusion of a citizenship question on the census could also discourage some legal immigrants who have not become citizens from answering the census. This could disproportionately hurt a state like New Jersey, which has a larger than average population of both legal and undocumented immigrants. The census counts all residents, regardless of their citizenship or legal status in the United States.
Lowenthal said that, given the census will be conducted during what is likely to be a heated presidential campaign, it is possible President Donald Trump will “ramp up the demonization of immigrants.” But, she added, all answers to the census are governed by “the strictest confidentiality laws on the books,” so everyone should feel safe in responding.
The state’s diversity and pockets of poverty also mean that it has a large number of people — 1.9 million, or 22 percent of the population — living in what are known as hard-to-count areas. These areas include a disproportionate number of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and children under age 5. New Jersey had nearly 500 hard-to-count census tracts in 2010 when the last census was conducted. A tract is a geographic area of between 2,500 and 8,000 people; one in which fewer than 73 percent of people answered the census was considered hard-to-count. Many were in cities like Newark, Camden, and Paterson.
It is going to take a significant outreach by state, local and nonprofit officials into those areas to get as accurate a count as possible.
The federal government has cut funding for the U.S. Census Bureau over the last decade — it canceled field tests in 2017 — and many say the bureau will not have the money it needs to conduct the count properly.
Lowenthal said the census alone is going to cost $8 billion to conduct and Trump has recommended $7.25 billion for the coming fiscal year for the bureau’s entire operations. She called the budget shortfall “alarming.”
How to get the word out
All these factors, including a potentially less than aggressive federal outreach, make it even more important for states and local organizations to do all they can to get the word out and urge residents to be counted.
“You have to drown it out with right information,” Lowenthal said of the strategy the state and organizations should take to combat the roadblocks. “Use social media. Push it out there.”
New Jersey’s effort is likely to include more than 100 statewide and local organizations, as well as county freeholders and city officials in Newark, Jersey City and other areas. Leading the state’s effort is its Complete Count Commission, which recently held its second public hearing in Paterson.
Mayor Andre Sayegh created a Paterson Complete Count Commission last August to help get a more accurate count next year. He told the commission at its March 21 meeting that the city lost out on first-class city status and additional federal funds because of a 2010 undercount, which put the population at just under 150,000. Next year, the commission will have an office downtown so it will be visible.
Paterson also plans to host a kickoff rally today. And two of its other efforts so far to help boost participation in the census are a math book called We Count for children to fill out, with their parents’ help, and a mascot, who will be a count.
Special emphasis on hard-to-count areas
“We are going to make sure we get that accurate count next year,” Sayegh said.
Lauren Zyriek, director of intergovernmental affairs in the Secretary of State’s Office, outlined for commission members and some 50 individuals who attended the March meeting the state’s current and planned efforts.
Three advisory committees have been created to focus on community advocacy, public-private partnerships, and education and intergovernmental affairs. These committees will work with local organizations on “educating and motivating citizens” to participate in the census, Zyriek said. Special emphasis will be placed on hard-to-count areas and groups that have traditionally been undercounted, such as children under age 5.
Some advocates say the state is not moving fast enough.
Alana Vega, who coordinates the annual Kids Count report for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, urged the commission to develop a preliminary action plan, with funding, by April 30, saying the June 30 deadline under which the commission is currently operating is “too late” to come up with a strategy.
“California is about a year ahead of us,” she said. “They have already done this.”
Vega added that the commission needs to help parts of the state get organized, saying that Camden, Atlantic City and Elizabeth are among the cities with hard-to-count areas that have not yet established their own complete count commissions.
Eric Kipnis, manager of constituent relations with the Department of State, said the state will be organizing and supporting local commissions and conducting broad-based social media and multimedia efforts that “deploy persuasion and encouragement” to get people to respond to the census.
“It will be, and ought to be, viewed as a social action campaign,” he said. Likening the effort to a political campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort, Kipnis said the state will develop and run, with local partners, a “get out the count campaign to motivate responses.”
Campaigns in other states already up and running
Many advocates say an aggressive outreach and marketing effort will be expensive. And New Jersey is already a few months behind states like California in planning its push. The $2 million Gov. Phil Murphy has earmarked for this purpose in next year’s budget is not enough, advocates complain.
Commission member and Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex) is co-sponsoring a bill (A-5056) to boost that amount to $9 million, roughly $1 for every New Jerseyan.
“If we are going to be effective in our census outreach, we absolutely do need enough money,” Lopez said.
The entire New Jersey House delegation is supporting that effort. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6) headed up a bipartisan letter urging Murphy and legislative leaders to provide “robust” funding for the census by coming up with the $9 million in Lopez’s bill. The letter said the money would help ensure New Jersey is on par with other states that are aggressively funding similar efforts.
“We write to ensure that the rapidly approaching 2020 census is a high priority for lawmakers in New Jersey this budget cycle,” the members wrote. “We must do everything we can to supplement the U.S. Census Bureau to make certain that New Jersey achieves a complete count.”
The countdown begins now.