Is politics driving 2020 census to undercount NJ residents?

New Jersey Counts Project Director Patricia Williamson warns the state’s hard-to-count cities, places with high minority and immigrant populations, still lag by 20% or more. Many are not submitting questionnaires because they’re afraid.

“A lot of people think if they put their information down, that they will have the IRS come after them, or that ICE will come,” Williamson said.

They won’t, she says, because census data is secure. But uncertainty lingers after the Trump administration tried and failed to put a citizenship question on the census form. The President Donald Trump followed up recently by ordering the count to end Sept. 30, chopping a month off the Oct. 31 deadline that was extended due to the pandemic. Advocates charge the move will undercount U.S. residents.

“This is not something that can be rushed. There’s a reason the Census Bureau asked for more time and the shortening of the timeline is a political move that threatens the accuracy of the Census count. And the responsibility of the count rests with Congress,” said Peter Chen, policy council for Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

Thursday, 500 advocacy groups from the nationwide Census Project sent a letter to Senate leaders asking Congress to restore the extra weeks needed to count and process census data. It’s mostly politics, according to NJ Spotlight Editor-at-Large Colleen O’Dea.

“Things have become more and more polarized, and I think we see the polarization just in general, right? It’s hard for anything to get through Congress. We’re just seeing that spill over into the census,” she said. “I think if there’s pressure brought by folks like a Marco Rubio or a Ted Cruz from Texas, that is going to carry a lot more weight.”

The latest U.S. census response rate is 63%. New Jersey hit 65%, with Hunterdon leading the counties with 74.7%. Cape May has the lowest response rate at 29.9%. It’s been a struggle in urban counties like Hudson, Essex and Passaic.

But population draws federal aid dollars, like grants to help counties cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Nine counties — like Bergen, Hudson, Essex, the larger counties — that have gotten money specifically from the feds for COVID,” O’Dea said. “But you have 12 counties who didn’t because they don’t have a population of 500,000 or more.”

“This is every program that you can think of that receives federal funds. It’s schools. It’s roads. It’s hospitals. It’s colleges. It’s special education. It’s Medicaid. Every program that you can think of that benefits kids and families is funded though formulas that are based on census counts,” Chen said.

But the census also determines how many Congressional representatives a state gets. In late July, the president fired off a memo to block undocumented immigrants from being counted, writing: “States adopting policies that encourage illegal aliens to enter this country and that hobble Federal efforts to enforce the immigration laws passed by the Congress should not be rewarded with greater representation …”

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal fired back, saying, “The President’s plainly illegal action not only dehumanizes members of our community but also seeks to punish states like New Jersey with larger immigrant populations.”

Jersey’s joined 20 other states suing to block Trump’s memo.

“We’re a much more diverse state than we were in 2010 and we need to have a fair and accurate count,” Williamson said.

Places like Jersey City are now stepping up and taking census forms door-to-door. It’s a full court press toward a full count.

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