NJ Pumps Up Its Efforts for Complete Count on 2020 Census

Colleen O'Dea | February 25, 2020 | More Issues
There’s a lot riding on the census, starting with federal funds and possibly a seat in Congress. And New Jersey has some populations and communities that may prove hard to count

With New Jerseyans due to begin receiving their U.S. Census surveys in less than three weeks, state and local officials are kicking into high gear their efforts at getting people to complete the questionnaires.

On Monday, the state Assembly passed two resolutions aimed at publicizing the decennial population count and getting individuals to fill out the surveys. The state has also given close to $5.2 million to counties and community organizations to help get the word out and is getting ready to launch a $3 million advertising blitz to make sure the public is aware of the count and participates.

“You’re going to see ads popping up across all platforms,” said Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Tahesha Way, who is heading up New Jersey’s Census efforts. “We will have a broad mix. We are trying to reach people where they are, particularly in hard-to-count areas.”

There’s a lot on the line for New Jersey, which was undercounted in the last two censuses in 2010 and 2000 and has areas with some of the largest populations at risk for not being counted properly in the nation.

Federal funds and the census count

A study released earlier this year greatly increased the estimate of the amount of federal funds distributed according to Census counts: New Jersey got $45.8 billion in the 2017 fiscal year, the ninth highest in the nation. Medicaid and Medicare are the largest of these, but there are more than 300 programs in all that cover a broad range of needs, including low-income housing assistance, highway planning and construction funds and aid to crime victims.

“It is so important that New Jersey gets counted. We don’t want to leave any federal money on the table,” said Assemblywoman Gabriella Mosquera (D-Camden), who sponsored the two resolutions promoting the Census. She added there is no reason not to complete the survey: “It’s simple, safe and secure.”

There is also the potential for the state to lose another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives — New Jersey lost one in 2010 and now has 12 House members — because those seats are apportioned based on the decennial count. This was the initial reason the Constitution requires a count of the population every 10 years.

“There is a lot of interest and discussion about the upcoming census, which is terrific,” said Mary Coogan, vice president of the Newark-based Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which is coordinating the Census 2020 NJ Coalition of organizations working to improve the response this year. “People seem excited and are organizing events and kiosks … Staff at ACNJ who talk to colleagues in other states are learning that New Jersey is in pretty good shape compared to other states.”

Mosquera introduced two resolutions after Coogan and other ACNJ staff testified before the Assembly Women and Children Committee that she chairs earlier this month.

Committees to ensure complete count

The first resolution approved by the Assembly, AR-78, would urge all counties and municipalities to form complete count committees, which consist of local leaders working to encourage participation in the Census in their areas.

The U.S. Census Bureau lists close to 200 such groups in New Jersey right now, including in Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and other areas with hard to count populations. New Jersey has its own 27-member commission that held hearings last year and released a report that contained a litany of suggestions for boosting the state’s response rate.

Still, four counties — Cape May, Monmouth, Salem and Sussex — have not formed committees. As a result, they did not get any share of some $3.2 million the Department of State has provided in grant money to help counties’ Census efforts. Of those four, only Monmouth has a nonprofit organization that received any state funding to promote the count.

Tricia Ring Wajda, a Monmouth County spokeswoman, said that while the county does not have its own committee and did not apply for a state grant, its planning department has been “working directly” with census representatives on actions related to the survey.

The state provided 52 groups ranging from YMCAs to United Ways and others focused on specific races or ethnicities close to $2 million in total for their own efforts. All told, the state budget includes $9 million for census efforts. Nonprofits were eligible for grants of up to $50,000 and counties could get as much as $450,000. Coogan said some of the counties distributed some of their funding to municipalities and nonprofits for their efforts.

D’Alessandro said every county could benefit from promoting the census and there is still time for groups to form committees or for individuals to commit to encouraging others to be counted.

“People can start with their own friends and family and tell them why the census is important,” she said.

A tech-savvy census?

Mosquera’s second resolution, AR-79, would designate March 12 through 20 as “Get Out the Count Week” as a way to encourage people to answer the census. This is when U.S. Census officials say households should be receiving information about how to fill out the survey online, by phone or by mail. The bureau is hoping most people will reply online, which has some concerned that those who are not tech savvy, or who lack a computer or internet connection, may not be counted.

This is about the time New Jersey plans to start a $3 million ad blitz across multiple platforms — online, in print, on billboards and elsewhere — with the goal of getting maximum participation in the first phase of the survey. The official count for the population on April 1. Between May and July, census takers will visit homes that did not return a questionnaire.

Why NJ has to try harder

New Jersey needs to do more than most states to try to coax some residents into responding because of populations living in census tracts or neighborhoods considered hard to count. These are defined as areas where fewer than 73% of residents filled out a questionnaire when it was first mailed to them in 2010, according to reports from The Leadership Conference Education Fund. For instance:

  • Newark ranks first and Jersey City second among the 100 largest cities or places in the nation according to the percent of blacks living in hard-to-count census tracts — 96% in Newark and 93% in Jersey City.
  • Jersey City ranks second and Newark third in the percentage of Hispanics in hard-to-count areas, with more than 93% of Latinos in each city. Detroit was first in the nation.
  • Newark ranks first and Jersey City third for Asians in hard-to-count areas — 90% in Newark and 86% in Jersey City.
  • Newark ranks first and Jersey City second in children under age 5 in hard-to-count tracts – 96% in Newark and 88% in Jersey City.
  • Overall, the City University of New York Graduate Center’s Hard to Count map estimates that nearly 25% of the state’s population lives in hard-to-count neighborhoods.

Coogan said ACNJ has been distributing posters and fact sheets, all funded by foundations, with new requests for information coming in every day.

“I think people started to focus on the census once the calendar was showing 2020,” she said.

She added that a number of groups are setting up kiosks where the public can fill out their survey online or over the telephone.

All efforts to publicize the census and encourage the public to be counted are welcome, and while Assembly passage of the resolutions is appreciated, lawmakers could do even more, Coogan added.

“I think that the resolutions are a great way to bring additional attention to the upcoming census,” she said. “It would be great if members of the Legislature can send emails to their constituents to remind them that the census is fast approaching.”