Working to Overcome Census Limitations to Make New Jersey’s Count Count

State’s broadly diverse populations, various languages and relatively deep digital divide are only some of the challenges to achieving an accurate tally for 2020 census
Credit: HTC
CUNY’s Hard to Count map estimates that nearly 25% of the state’s population lives in hard-to-count neighborhoods.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s strategies for getting New Jersey residents to complete next year’s decennial population count look less effective than some involved in trying to boost the state’s response rate had hoped.

The bureau announced earlier this week a $250 million advertising campaign titled “Shape Your Future. START HERE,” whose goal is educating the public about the census and motivating people to complete the count. Ads are to span television, radio, digital media, newspapers, magazines and billboards and will reach 99% of the nation’s households, according to VMLY&R, the agency coordinating the campaign. Its buy lists almost 3,900 media outlets but appears to contain only eight that are New Jersey-based or unique to audiences in the state.

Census officials also recently released their plans for targeting how individuals complete the census — either online or via hard copy. One analysis found that the bureau plans to rely more heavily on internet responses in New Jersey than nationally.

NJ gets short shrift

Both plans come up short in the mind of Peter Chen, policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey who is coordinating 2020 Census outreach efforts by nonprofits and community-based organizations through the Census 2020 NJ Coalition.

“We have long advocated for the Census Bureau to make paper forms more available because of the digital divide,” Chen said, adding, “we’re concerned about the lack of New Jersey-specific outlets in the census media buy.”

The coalition and numerous county and local Census Complete Count committees and public officials across the state are working to get the most accurate count in the next constitutionally mandated population count because so much is riding on the results.

An accurate census count is important so that New Jersey gets its fair share of federal funding — in 2016, the state received an estimated $23 billion in aid based on population.

Census counts are also used to determine how many members each state gets to send to the House of Representatives. The more members of Congress a state has, the greater its potential clout in Washington. In 2010, when fewer than three-quarters of New Jerseyans answered the census, the state lost a seat in the House because its population had not grown by as much as other states in the previous decade.

The analysis of initial census contacts by the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center found the bureau is planning to ask 85.8% of households to answer the census online or by phone, with 8.8% getting a bilingual notice. Almost all of the rest, 13.4% of households, would get a paper form to mail back to the bureau, with the option of responding online if they wish. Nationally, more than 21% of households are slated to get an initial questionnaire in the mail, with 75.8% expected to answer online.

While those who don’t respond to the first mailing are supposed to eventually get a paper questionnaire, Chen said that will happen later in the process — the official count is based on residence on April 1, although notices are expected to be sent out next March — and the lag could leave some people uncounted.

Some populations prefer paper

“The Census Bureau’s methodology for selecting areas to send paper questionnaires and bilingual mailings makes sense by focusing on internet access and response rates,” he said, noting the bureau used population and language data, as well as prior response rates in determining its strategy. Still, “our concern remains that many populations, particularly hard-to-count populations, are more comfortable with the paper questionnaire,” Chen added.

Some groups of people are considered harder to count than others, including undocumented immigrants, non-English speakers and children under 5. CUNY’s Hard to Count map estimates that nearly 25% of the state’s population lives in hard-to-count neighborhoods — places where fewer than three-quarters of residents sent back their census forms in 2010.

But next year’s census could add senior citizens to that list, as some are not tech-savvy and may not understand how to fill out the questionnaire online or over the phone.

A bureau report released earlier this year found that a majority of older residents and individuals with less than a high school education would prefer to fill out a paper questionnaire and close to half of those with a high school diploma but no college coursework would also rather not fill out the census online.

The Census 2020 NJ Coalition has advocated for local complete-count efforts to include senior services and organizations, and setting up census events in senior or older adult living communities. Additionally, older adults and retirees are often trusted members of the community who can serve as volunteers or apply for Census Bureau enumerator positions.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found seniors to be the age group most likely to complete the census, but it’s unclear whether they will be counted if they think they have to answer online.

Trying to cross digital divide

“The digital divide may be a serious issue for seniors or hard-to-count populations preferring paper who live outside of the tracts receiving a paper questionnaire with the first mailing, especially because much of the census messaging and outreach will take place during March, when many communities will not yet have received their paper questionnaire,” Chen said.

It may also be difficult for some New Jersey residents to find out what they need to know about the census if the bureau’s ads don’t reach them.

Chen said that since polling data in the past suggests that New Jersey news consumers focus more on local issues than state or national ones, “the lack of New Jersey-specific, local and language-specific media could be a serious problem.”

VMLY&R’s list of media outlets for advertising includes New York-based television stations WABC, WCBS and WNBC and Philadelphia cable stations CNN, TNT and VH1, which reach into New Jersey. Additional national ads, including those on Google and Facebook, also will likely reach New Jerseyans. But of stations based in the state, only WWOR and WNJU are slated to receive ads. Additionally, just six other media made the list. All are newspapers, with four targeting specific ethnic populations — Chinese, Filipino, Taiwanese. Two others reach specific geographies — Jersey City Daily Challenger and Paterson-Passaic Daily Challenger, both listed as having an audience that is black and Asian American.

Chen said the coalition is taking “a more in-depth look at whether some of these media buys are based in New Jersey” but said that if not, members could lobby census officials to include some groups or areas that were left out. For instance, the media buy does not appear to include Portuguese-language media, which is a key language for Newark.

“In the past the Census Bureau has been responsive to advocacy from local groups to ensure that certain areas are covered, especially if those sources are trusted with specific hard-to-reach populations,” Chen said. He added that “advocates are hoping that the State Complete Count Commission will engage in a communications campaign targeting some of the outlets outside of the bureau’s media buy.”

Quiet on the Complete Count front

New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way heads the state’s Complete Count Commission. The commission released a report earlier this year that calls for a statewide multimedia marketing campaign but has been quiet lately. The commission has a $9 million budget and plans to provide grants to nonprofits and counties to help boost census participation. Applications were due Oct. 31 but no announcement has been made about who may be getting grants.  A request for comment on the grants and the bureau’s recent announcements Wednesday went unanswered.

Local officials said they are ready to step in and do what it takes to see that all residents are counted.

“We have an imperative to get this right and to guarantee we are using every possible tool at our disposal to initiate participation,” said Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez, liaison to the county Department of Health and Human Services and the county’s census contact. “This is an all-hands-on-deck event that is a top-level priority for us at the county and in the city (Camden). We are the tip of the spear when it comes to making sure all residents are counted and if extra resources need to be allocated from our committee we are willing to do just that.”

Rodriguez said it’s important that the people who are doing the count in Camden are familiar with the community and noted that the census is continuing to hire workers in the county. Job fairs are scheduled for today between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Youthbuild Housing Authority and Puerto Rican Unity for Progress. The Census Bureau has increased the minimum hourly pay for census workers in the county to $17.50. The bureau’s website includes information about job requirements.