Census 2020: Innovation Could Boost Participation — But It Won’t Come Cheap

A census coloring book for kids, tablets and laptops loaded with surveys, websites and social media: It’s no wonder census champions are turning to New Jersey’s philanthropic organizations

Census book for kids
A census-themed children’s book in 20 languages; tablets and laptops on which individuals can fill out the 2020 survey; and informative websites and social media campaigns are some of the methods organizations are planning to use to try to maximize New Jersey’s population count next year.

But innovative ideas need funding, and leaders of New Jersey’s philanthropic organizations and nonprofits heard pleas for their help in achieving an accurate 2020 census count. This will be particularly difficult in the Garden State for a number of reasons, including its diverse population and the possible inclusion of a citizenship question as part of the census.

There’s a lot on the line, both in federal funding — one study found that New Jersey got an estimated $23 billion in aid based on population in 2016 — and representation in Congress.

Gary Bass, executive director of the Bauman Foundation
“Census data is the gold standard,” said Gary Bass, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Bauman Foundation, discussing what philanthropy can do for the census. “If we don’t get that right, it influences virtually everything we do … If we get the census wrong, we distort democracy for the next decade.”

Members of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers have already pledged more than $1 million toward the effort but were asked to consider doing even more during Tuesday’s conference, which focused on challenges to and the need for an accurate count.

Testing the citizenship question

The gathering was timely. As the conference was in session, census officials in Washington, DC, announced they would be testing two different surveys this week: one that includes and one that excludes a citizenship question. About 480,000 homes are to receive census forms at random. Based on the responses, census officials will be able to gauge how many census takers they should hire to follow up with households that do not answer the questions.

Jeff Behler, New York regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau
Those who do not respond by mid-May will get a follow-up visit, said Jeff Behler, New York regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau, who attended the conference in Somerset and explained the timeline for the count, which the U.S. Constitution mandates must take place every 10 years.

The U.S. Supreme Court could issue its decision as early as next Monday on whether the Trump administration should be allowed to include a question about citizenship status. If it assents, this will be the first time in 70 years that the question will be part of the decennial census.

Numerous advocates say the inclusion of a citizenship question will depress responses from immigrant households. They charged that question was politically motivated and cited a recently disclosed study by a Republican redistricting expert, who wrote that using citizenship data would help the GOP and non-Hispanic whites in redrawing political maps and entered an early request for the Census Bureau to include a citizenship question.

Census Bureau cutbacks

In addition, several of the speakers feared that cutbacks in the bureau’s budget could also lead to a lower response rate. In 2010, 74 percent of New Jerseyans answered the census.

Behler said the state will have fewer offices than in past years — just eight this time around — but that will not be a problem.

“That’s OK because we have inserted technology,” he said. “We are so agile, so much more efficient.”

Other speakers, including Bass, did not agree. “It’s up to foundations to pick up the slack,” Bass said.

He said the public’s feelings about government and the census are not particularly positive and could also work against an accurate count. In 2010, about 25 percent of those polled said they trusted government. Now, that figure has dropped to 17 percent. Similarly, 85 percent of respondents said they would answer the census in 2010, compared with 67 percent today. “Your intention is always higher than reality,” he added.

Kiki Jamieson, president of The Fund for New Jersey
Kiki Jamieson, president of The Fund for New Jersey, one of NJ Spotlight’s funders, said a number of foundations have already given $1.2 million to support census efforts.

“They recognize it is an important moment and this is the moment for action,” she said.

As with several other groups, this is a relatively new type of civic involvement for The Fund for New Jersey, Jamieson said. “The fund was never involved in census work before 2017. Then we jumped in with both feet.”

Coordinating with Complete Count

New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way
Jamieson explained that a coalition of philanthropic and nonprofit groups has been working on census efforts and will be coordinating with the state’s Complete Count Commission in its upcoming outreach and advertising campaigns. Secretary of State Tahesha Way, who chairs New Jersey’s CCC, has not yet released the state’s strategic plan but should be doing so soon, with a deadline of June 30 to present that plan to lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy.

Local Complete Count commissions and a host of community organizations around the state are not waiting for that report and have planned or are already undertaking several unique efforts beyond mere media campaigns.

One effort involves partnering with churches and other houses of worship and bringing laptops and tablets to services to make it easier for members of a congregation to complete the survey after the religious leader preaches about the census and the importance of filling it out.

Paterson plans to pilot a program developed by simply put media that includes a board book for young children called We Count! that helps children learn to count and gives parents information about how and why to answer the census. The book is available in 20 different languages. The program includes training for those who distribute the books to families, as well as posters and other media.

An organization in the state’s third-largest city, which already has been holding rallies and undertaking other census efforts, has also launched a website that it is updating with information on events and answers to common questions, such as whether someone who is not a citizen should answer the census and what the government does with the information.

Cash for the count

Such initiatives need funding. Murphy has proposed $2 million for next year, in addition to $500,000 in the current spending plan. Advocates say that’s not enough and continue to lobby for $9 million. The Legislature has yet to vote on the 2020 budget and could add some money for census outreach, as several lawmakers also think Murphy’s recommendation is insufficient.

Maria Vizcarrondo, president and CEO of the Council of NJ Grantmakers, said philanthropic spending on the census is a good investment that would pay dividends.

“If the census is more accurate, more money will be coming into the government,” she said. “That means organizations that are already stretched so thin may not need to provide as much assistance.”

A lot of the effort will be volunteer-driven and cost little or no money.

Peter Chen, policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey
Peter Chen, policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said one crucial piece is to change the way people talk about the census. For instance, advocates need to stop talking about fears the government might use answers to target an individual — answers to the census are kept confidential for 72 years. Instead, they should emphasize what an individual or community gets as a result of an accurate count.

“The more you talk about data confidentiality, the more they fear,” he said. “We need to talk more about the programs they use, about the value it has for the community, the schools. More fire trucks, more hospital beds, more potholes getting fixed. That is the message we need to be pushing.”

Chen and others also stressed the importance of recruiting “trusted” individuals within neighborhoods to talk to their neighbors about the benefits of answering the census. Inge Spungen, executive director of the Paterson Alliance, said 120 people from different neighborhoods in the city are part of Paterson’s outreach team.

“The more messengers you have, the better,” said Betsy Plum, vice president of policy with the New York Immigration Coalition. “In the past, there was a lot of money put into big messaging campaigns … We need people to have one-on-one conversations and small-group conversations. It really comes back to the fact that it is in folks’ best interests to complete the census.”

Advocates should also deal with groups based on their strengths and needs, said Chen. For instance, immigrants are more likely to prefer answering a paper survey, while younger parents may feel more comfortable completing the questions online.

Bass said now is the time for local groups to be identifying hard-to-count areas — New Jersey had almost 500 areas of between 3,000 and 8,0000 people with low-response rates in 2010. Improving those rates means understanding different populations and how to get them to answer the survey, whether to use text messaging or knock on doors. Getting people to pledge to fill out the census, similar to a voting pledge, may also work.

“We have an obligation not only constitutionally but also morally to get a good count for New Jersey,” he said.