The first 2020 census data is in: Sorry, Jersey City, but Newark is still New Jersey’s most populous city. Close to 22% of New Jersey residents are Hispanic and the number of Asians in the state increased by almost a third between 2010 and 2020.

The state’s far southern and its more rural counties are losing population. Urban areas are growing.

The growth in New Jersey’s population over the last decade was fueled by increases in diverse populations and in the state’s urban areas, mirroring national trends, according to the first details from the 2020 U.S. census released Thursday.

Growth between 2010 and 2020 was most concentrated in Hudson and Essex counties. Ocean County saw a rise driven by Lakewood’s highest-in-the-state population increase of 46%. Newark broke the 300,000-population threshold for the first time in decades, maintaining its spot as the state’s most populous municipality with close to 312,000 inhabitants.

“The trends seen in the yearly population estimates have continued, especially in the county data, where we’ve seen growth concentrated in the eastern half of the state,” said Peter Chen, who had headed up a coalition of organizations that worked to boost public response to the census and is now with the progressive-leaning organization New Jersey Policy Perspective.

Most of that growth was among Hispanics and Asians: The number of people identifying as Latino rose by almost 29%, while the ranks of Asians rose by 31%. Some of the increases may be due to a change in the way the U.S. Census Bureau collected racial and ethnic data. But there were still clear increases in those groups while the percentage of non-Hispanic whites declined by almost 8%. Still, whites remained the majority of the state’s 9.29 million residents — 52% in 2020. More than two of every 10 New Jerseyans were Hispanic and one in 10 were Asian.

Where the population has increased

“New Jersey is now, according to the census data, over 48% people of color,” said Henal Patel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, one of the many organizations that worked to promote responding to the survey. “That’s not surprising if you live here, and you’re actually following this. You know that our greatest population increases in the state have been within communities of color … And it’s going to be, I would argue, the big issue here for redistricting.”

The first release of 2020 census data is required by law to enable states to redraw their congressional and legislative district boundaries. In New Jersey, the two commissions that do that work now have the data to begin doing just that.

But there are other reasons why the data is important. Officials at all levels of government use the information for planning purposes, including where to build new schools or roads and where to target vaccination efforts during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Billions in federal funds are also distributed based on census data, and by crossing the 150,000-person threshold, Paterson joins Newark and Jersey City in being eligible for additional aid.

“This is a big victory for Paterson!” said Mayor Andre Sayegh. He created a Complete Count Committee in the city in anticipation of the count as the city and organizations launched an all-out effort to get residents to participate. That effort included door-to-door canvassing and numerous events centered around the importance of being counted. “In spite of the pandemic, we exceeded our objective. This significant increase is a testament to the tremendous emphasis and effort that we invested in getting a complete and accurate count,” Sayegh said.

Paterson’s population rose by more than 9% to almost 160,000.

Paterson was not New Jersey’s only census success story. Chen said the state’s strategy, which included a statewide commission, $9 million in state spending and a robust network of governmental and nonprofit organizations of all sizes, is reflected in the results.

Robust efforts to count people

“Cities that conducted robust campaigns saw growth well beyond the predicted population based on the Census’s population estimate methodology,” he said. “The Census campaign showed how coordination of non-profits, state, county and local government, along with community members, could lead to broad-scale civic engagement and a more accurate Census count.”

While Jersey City’s population grew more than that of neighboring Newark — 18% versus 12% — Newark kept its bragging rights as New Jersey’s largest.

But the fastest growing municipality of those of any significant size was Lakewood, home to a large community of Orthodox Jews. Lakewood added more than 42,000 residents between 2010 and 2020, only 2,500 shy of the nearly 45,000-increase in Jersey City. That bumped Lakewood from seventh most populous community in the state to fifth, about 2,000 behind Elizabeth.

Unlike the state as a whole and most other municipalities, Lakewood’s population growth was mostly among whites.

Still, New Jersey ranked as the sixth most diverse state in the nation, seventh if the District of Columbia is included in the rankings. New Jersey moved up two places since 2010 in a census diversity ranking. That ranking, released separately, shows there is a 65.8% chance that if two New Jersey residents are chosen at random, they would be a different race or ethnicity from one another. The national average is 61.1%.

The census bureau plans to release more detailed data, including ancestry of races and ethnicities, by the end of September.

Population losses in the south

Large increases in urban areas and Ocean County were somewhat offset by population in losses in outlying counties. The four southernmost counties — Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem — and northernmost Sussex County all lost population.

“Metro areas are even more prominent this decade, as the locations of population growth, amidst otherwise widespread population decline,” said Marc Perry, a senior demographer with the census bureau during a news conference Thursday to release the data. “We see a strong relationship to population size, with small counties tending to lose population and more populous counties tending to gain people.”

James Hughes, a Rutgers University professor who directs the Rutgers Regional Report — which tracks economic, demographic and market trends — said New Jersey’s data confirms patterns seen in the annual American Community Survey estimates from the census bureau.

“There was a clear-cut trend for 2010 to 2020,” he said. “Estimates were showing that Ocean County was the only county in New Jersey with a positive net increase in domestic migration. Growth in other counties was due to immigration.”

Only near the end of the decade did millennials, those born roughly between 1981 and the mid-1990s, start settling down and moving to suburbs, driving some growth there. That has likely increased due to the pandemic, which prompted some to flee New York City in particular, but none of those changes are captured in the current data because they happened after the census count, Hughes said.

All the new data is derived from the most recent national census, which was a simple survey with nine questions. It was conducted in spring and summer of 2020.

This was one of the most chaotic counts in decades. There were several court battles over the former Trump administration’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the census form. Although the decennial census officially counts residents where they are living on April 1, in 2020 it was launched a couple of weeks early and right at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in New Jersey. In-person follow-ups to reach those who did not respond either online — for the first time — or by mail were delayed by several weeks due to concerns about the spreading virus.

The data is usually released early in the year after the count is conducted but was delayed due to the continuing pandemic and the change in administrations in Washington. New Jersey and Virginia, the only states with statewide elections this year, normally would have gotten their data by early spring and already finished drawing their state’s  district boundaries. Last fall, New Jersey voters passed a constitutional amendment delaying the state’s legislative redistricting if census data were not delivered in February, so lawmakers and challengers are running this year in the current districts. But all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives will be running next year in newly drawn districts using the data.

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