Plans To Maximize Census Count Coalesce In Wake Of High-court Decision

Colleen O'Dea | July 3, 2019 | Politics
Feds abandon citizenship question, but Murphy agrees to spend $7M extra on statewide outreach effort anyway

Credit: NJTV News
Census 2020
A statewide multimedia marketing campaign in several languages and coordinated among dozens of local volunteer committees is what’s envisioned to make sure as many New Jerseyans as possible are counted in the 2020 census. It’s a task that just became a little easier, after the Trump administration announced Tuesday that it would abandon its quest to include a citizenship question on the census form.

New Jersey’s Complete Count Commission issued its report this week recommending how the state should try to get the most people to respond to the decennial population survey, required by the U.S. Constitution. It outlines actions the 27-member commission has taken so far and provides a proposed roadmap for future state actions.

The report does not specify how the state should spend a $9 million budget allocation approved by Gov. Phil Murphy on Sunday. He had initially recommended $2 million for the commission and lawmakers added $7 million more. Murphy did not line-item veto that amount and even took some credit for the spending in a press release his office issued Sunday.

“The Appropriations Act includes $9 million to ensure a robust Census 2020 effort in New Jersey and maximize federal resources for the State,” the governor’s office wrote. “These funds will allow the Complete Count Commission to coordinate a comprehensive effort to ensure that all residents are counted, particularly in communities that historically are under-counted.”

Legislators and advocates had feared the inclusion of a citizenship question on the census form would depress responses in a state as diverse as New Jersey and had lobbied for the additional money. But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ announcement Tuesday that he was abandoning the question, following last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on the citizenship question, should help assuage some fears among immigrants.

Murphy praised the decision to drop the question. “I am pleased that this unconscionable and discriminatory attack on our country’s civic processes has come to an end, so that we can get to work on an effective and complete 2020 Census in order to ensure the fair political representation and federal funding that New Jerseyans so deeply deserve,” he said.

Extra effort still needed

Still, advocates worry that all the publicity over the question has already done damage and may have prompted some residents to decide not to answer the survey. They say New Jersey still will need a significant expenditure to maximize its response rate.

Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden), a member of the commission, applauded Murphy’s decision to keep the additional money in the budget.

“This Commission is committed to ensuring that populations historically unaccounted for in hard to count areas, such as immigrants, minorities and the homeless, will no longer remain overlooked,” she said. “As legislators, it is our responsibility to ensure ample resources are available to effectively serve the members of our communities and I am proud to see New Jersey stay committed to that responsibility.”

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Tahesha Way, who chaired the commission, or CCC, did not answer a request for comment on plans to divvy up the funding.

One potentially big-ticket item is the comprehensive marketing and advertising plan that the commission is seeking. It would include a logo and branding consistent on all documents and all websites both at the state level and among local groups.

The commission is looking for a marketing firm that will “inspire all New Jerseyans, regardless of citizenship or other status, to respond to the 2020 Census.” This campaign is to include a digital hub and “robust” social media, and blend “interactive educational elements with emotionally compelling stories about the real-world impacts of the Census” meant to get people to participate in it.

“The ‘Get Out The Count’ campaign must communicate to all New Jerseyans — regardless of status — that the Census is important to their community, and that the data collected through the Census is confidential,” according to the report.

Accurate count is essential to state

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The reason an accurate census count is essential is that both federal funding — an estimated $23 billion in aid to New Jersey in 2016 — and the number of members the state gets in the House of Representatives are determined by the count. In 2010, fewer than three-quarters of New Jerseyans answered the census. Because the tally of the state’s population did not grow as much as that of other states, New Jersey lost one seat in the House.

There is nothing especially surprising in the report’s recommendations. Most if not all of what the commission is suggesting has been discussed at hearings and other meetings held over the last several months.

The other key component, in addition to marketing and advertising, is creating an army of local volunteers around the state who will work to persuade their neighbors and friends to be counted. They are going to focus, in particular, on hard-to-count populations — including children under age 5 — and hard-to-count areas that have large populations of minorities, immigrants and non-English speakers.

Work already started

According to the plan, the grassroots organizing effort that is already under way is working to identify stakeholders in faith-based organizations, businesses, healthcare, ethnic groups and other organizations to tell individuals, especially in the hard-to-count areas, why it is important to be counted, as well as answer any fears people may have about being tracked by the government. (All answers on the census are kept confidential for 72 years.)

The local complete-count commissions will “function as community Organizing Action Teams and as a hub for resources and activities for all things Census related,” the report states.

But the CCC has its work cut out for it in this respect. As of March 20, 2019, 10 targeted areas — Hackensack, Morristown/Dover, Elizabeth, Asbury Park/Long Branch, Woodbridge, New Brunswick, Plainfield, Camden, Atlantic City/Pleasantville/Galloway and Salem City — had not yet formed a local commission.

Nearly 500 census tracts, which are sections of between 2,500 and 8,000 people that may coincide with municipal borders or span multiple town boundaries, in all but three counties — Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren — had fewer than 73 percent response rates to the 2010 census. These hard-to-count areas are home to more than half of the state’s African Americans, 40 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of Asians.