Is NJ Prepared to Spend $9M — $1 Per Person — to Ensure Accurate Census Count?

The Murphy administration has allocated $2.45 million for a census outreach campaign, but advocates and some lawmakers say more than three times that amount is needed

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No one thinks New Jersey is devoting enough money to the census — a huge issue for the state since it could lose billions and even a member of Congress if the population is undercounted.

The Murphy administration is asking for $2.45 million for outreach efforts, including a multimedia campaign intended to educate the public about the importance of the U.S. Census and encourage residents to fill out the form next spring.

“I’m not sure that a multimedia campaign, the kind I’m envisioning, is going to be realized with only $2.5 million,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones (D-Camden). “Other states are putting a lot more money into it. I think maybe we’re underfunding our effort a little bit.”

A number of advocacy groups have already made this point to Gov. Phil Murphy. They suggest New Jersey needs to spend $9 million, or about $1 per person, to mount a robust campaign that can deal with a highly diverse population speaking dozens of languages.

More than a dozen lawmakers agree and have introduced legislation (A-5056) to bring the census appropriation to $9 million. Even if that measure does not advance, lawmakers could add additional funds for census outreach to the state budget when they vote on it in June.

The issue of funding for the census came up at the Assembly Budget Committee yesterday, when lawmakers were considering the proposed budget for the Department of State, which oversees a host of programs including election oversight, arts funding, and small business assistance. Under Murphy’s plan, the DOS budget, not counting funding for colleges, would rise by just $700,000, or 1 percent, in the next fiscal year to $71.1 million.

New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way
The state’s Complete Count Commission, which Secretary of State Tahesha Way chairs, would get a $1.5 million boost for 2020 census outreach, bringing the total $2.45 million.

Several members of the Assembly Budget Committee were skeptical that the state will have enough money for an effective census campaign.

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) said the state could lose billions of dollars over the next decade, if there is a significant undercount. That’s a possibility, he believes, particularly if the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to include a citizenship question on the form.

If the court adds the question, McKeon said, that could result in an undercount of at least 500,000, given the state’s significant population of undocumented immigrants. A large undercount could also lead to the loss of another member of the House of Representatives; New Jersey lost one seat in 2010 and now has a dozen House members.

“We have people spending $30 million on a legislative seat and that’s not statewide,” McKeon said. “Is $2 million really enough?”

Rather than answer the question in the abstract, Way said she has to live within the budget allotted to her.

“We have to be prudent and fiscally responsible,” she said. “We will do our best with what was recommended in our budget. That’s how we have to proceed.”

Spending money to make money

After the hearing, McKeon said it’s not prudent to save money on census outreach if that is going to mean New Jersey gets less in federal dollars because of an undercount.

“I’d take out a loan to pay for it,” he said. “This is a straight-out one-time investment that would bring in billions of dollars.”

A full census every 10 years is mandated by the U.S. Constitution. All residents of the United States, regardless of citizenship status, are asked to provide the government with basic information — such as name, age, and race — in order to get the most accurate count of the population. In addition to an estimated $20 billion in federal funding for schools, health insurance, transportation infrastructure, housing, and food aid, the count is used to determine the number of representatives New Jersey gets to send to Congress and the boundaries of state legislative districts.

The Complete Count Commission is charged with reporting its recommended strategy to the state by June 30. These include a multimedia effort, coordination with other governmental agencies, organizing local commissions, public events, education, “persuasion and encouragement campaign,” and a motivational Get Out The Census effort along the lines of the annual Get Out the Vote campaigns.

Working with ‘trusted messengers’

Way said the state will work closely with “trusted messengers,” including church, community, and business leaders, to help spread the word about the importance of the census and stress that all answers are kept confidential by law for 72 years.

She also said the department plans to be proactive in monitoring and debunking misinformation expected to be spread via social media.

“We are going to do all we can to avoid an undercount,” Way said.

The state commission isn’t spending much — roughly $50,000 — on staff and on the three meetings it has held across the state to get public input on its efforts. The commission could have hired three staffers specifically for the commission, according to the law Murphy signed last August creating it. Instead, Way said the DOS staff are supporting the commission’s work and the other $450,000 of its $500,000 appropriation this year is earmarked for marketing and media. The commission is slated to get another $2 million in fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1.

According to the statute that created it, the commission is charged with developing and administering an outreach strategy to encourage full and accurate participation in the census. Its strategy must include state-agency initiatives, establishment and support of school-based outreach programs, partnerships with nonprofit community-based organizations, and a multilingual, multicultural, multimedia campaign with information that can be widely disseminated among all of the state’s diverse populations and communities.

The commission has held three public hearings in different parts of the state, as required by law. It also coordinated a statewide kickoff April 1, a year before the officials census count next year. In addition, it has been helping form local complete count committees. It is planning a series of events across the state through next spring to highlight the count and its importance.

Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex)
Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex) told Way that she should feel free to call on lawmakers to help with the effort.

“I want to just say how important it is that, with regards to the census, how important it is that we really are out there and we’re advocating,” said Pintor Marin, who represents most of Newark, which has a number of districts considered “hard to count.” “I know that you are only allocated right now thus far the $2 million, but whatever it is our offices could obviously do and assist in making sure that constituents understand how important this is, please let us know because I think all of us, as bipartisan, are willing and able to help you out, carry that message.”

The U.S. 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. Of particular concern are hard-to-count census tracts of between 2,500 and 8,000 people that may coincide with municipal borders or span multiple towns, where fewer than 73 percent answered the 2010 census. New Jersey had nearly 500 hard-to-count tracts in 18 of 21 counties. Many are in cities like Newark, Camden, and Paterson.

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, nonnative English speakers, the indigent, the homeless, college students, and young children.