Op-Ed: NJ’s census counts highlight successful campaign

Peter Chen, Alana Vega | May 7, 2021 | Opinion
New Jersey’s collaborative, well-funded approach is a model of how federal agencies, state, county and local governments and nonprofits can together build civic engagement
Peter Chen and Alana Vega

New Jersey’s 2020 census count of 9,288,994 residents outpaced predictions and served as evidence of the state’s effective outreach campaign. The 2020 count represented a 5.7% increase over its 2010 population count, adding almost a half-million residents over the past decade. Although this rate was slower than the national growth rate of 7.4%, it outpaced the Northeast region’s growth of 4.1%.

But the count itself is just the beginning of a decade-long process that will shape New Jersey politically and financially. These once-a-decade counts form the foundation of how power and funding are distributed across the country.

Census drives political representation, funding and data

One immediate effect is that New Jersey will retain its 12 congressional seats, as well as its 14 electoral votes in presidential elections. Although projections based on other population estimates suggested our state was at low risk of losing another seat, in the end New Jersey’s count left it within striking distance of regaining its 13th seat.

In order to redraw the lines of those 12 districts, the redistricting process will begin in earnest once the census releases more in-depth data files to states in September.

Federal funding formulas for a wide range of programs also depend on census counts to distribute funding fairly and accurately. The census guides more than $45 billion in federal funding to New Jersey each year. The level of census-driven federal funding was even higher in 2020 and 2021, with substantial federal coronavirus relief and stimulus funding determined by Census counts. For example, the American Rescue Plan grants to individual New Jersey cities were based on census population counts. Although the just-released census counts only include statewide population at the moment, county and municipal population counts from the 2020 census will eventually guide federal funding as well.

But beyond politics and funding, the decennial population counts also form the foundation of our understanding of almost all data about our state. When Advocates for Children of New Jersey publishes Kids Count reports, which include information on the percentage of children who are living in poverty or uninsured and a breakdown of racial or ethnic groups by county, it depends on the accuracy of the underlying population counts.

Potential concerns ahead

Although the 2020 census count in New Jersey was an undoubted success especially in light of the pandemic and ensuing shutdowns, there are some warning signs for New Jersey in the data quality metrics released by the census.

Many of those federal funds distributed based on census counts actually rely on annual adjustments to the decennial counts called “Resident Population Estimates.” The Census Bureau takes the decennial census count, and each year uses birth, death and migration data to adjust the count upward or downward accordingly. These estimates are released each year until the next decennial census. When you read a report stating that New Jersey grew or shrank by some amount of people last year, these population estimates are the source.

These estimates should ideally line up with the decennial census counts. After ten years of births, deaths and in- and out-migration, that estimated number should match the 2020 census count.

However, New Jersey’s actual 2020 census count outpaced this population estimate by almost 400,000 residents, or 4.5%. Put another way, compared to the estimated 2020 population, New Jersey’s 2020 census count seemingly added a city the size of Jersey City and Paterson combined.

In the graph, the population estimates were showing slowing growth throughout the 2000s, including a slight decline between 2018 and 2019. Yet the 2020 census count showed a substantial increase, far above what the trend line and the population estimates would have suggested.

The Census Bureau’s population estimates are just that — an estimate, with a different methodology than the in-person count. But the difference is still higher than in 2010, when New Jersey only had a smaller 0.8% difference between its census count and its estimate.

If the population estimate methodology is missing some part of New Jersey’s actual population growth, it may mean lower federal funding in the intervening decade before our 2030 census count.

The Census Bureau’s report states they are planning to use this difference between the two figures to “inform methodological improvements and research for the estimates.” Accurate annual population estimates will be critical to ensuring that New Jersey receives its fair share of federal funding.

A successful campaign

These concerns are serious ones, but in the end, the best way to counteract them was a complete and accurate 2020 census count, which New Jersey now appears to have accomplished.

New Jersey’s collaborative and well-funded approach stands as a model to the nation of how federal agencies, state, county and local governments and nonprofit or community-based organizations can come together to build civic engagement.

The $9.5 million in state funds and millions more in philanthropic grants ensured that nonprofits and county and local governments had sufficient funding to continue census activities long past the originally planned July 31 deadline deep into September and October 2020. Secretary of State Tahesha Way and the statewide Complete Count Commission helped coordinate an extensive statewide outreach and marketing campaign. Early planning and strong relationships between key leaders and trusted community members helped to get the word out about the importance of the census, with an emphasis on New Jersey’s hardest-to-count communities.

Counting one of the nation’s most racially and ethnically diverse states will require a great deal of effort and likely even more collaboration and investment in decades to come. It may also require earlier planning, as early as 2026. But New Jersey can stop to celebrate this good news and the benefits the state’s residents will reap over the next decade.