If We Want Our Share Of Tax Dollars, Electoral Votes, We Must Get The 2020 Census Right, Group Says

Ten years. That’s how long we’ll have to live with a mistake if we get it wrong a year from today – on Census Day.

Every 10 years, the United States is constitutionally required to count every single person living in this country. Everyone – all adults, all children, all immigrants – must be counted. This process is called the U.S. census and it is enormously important.

The census count determines our representation in Washington. It is used to determine how many seats we have in the House of Representatives and how many electoral votes we have. Census data is used to draw congressional and legislative lines during redistricting and relied on to enforce the crucial protections of civil rights laws.

The census is also used to determine how much federal funding we receive for essential programs. New Jersey receives more than $17.5 billion from the federal government. School breakfast and lunches, pre-school, after-school/child care, and summer programs; public health programs including WIC, immunizations, and Maternal & Child Health; and construction of better roads and safer bridges – are all funded through census data. New Jersey has one of the worst racial wealth gaps in the country, and that gap will only increase if these programs are not adequately funded.

A complete and accurate count next year is crucial. So, what’s the problem?

There’s a good chance that if we don’t act now, New Jersey will be undercounted.

Almost a quarter of New Jersey’s population lives in “hard to count” (HTC) areas, designated because fewer than 73 percent of the residents returned their census forms in 2010. Certain populations, including people of color, low-income individuals, young children, immigrants, and transient people, are most likely to go uncounted.

New Jersey has HTC areas in 18 out of its 21 counties. Newark and Jersey City, New Jersey’s two largest cities, rank first and second in the nation for their percentages of African-Americans living in HTC tracts (Newark – 96.1 percent, Jersey City – 92.9 percent) , and rank third and second in the nation for their percentages of Hispanics living in HTC tracts (Newark – 93.1 percent, Jersey City – 93.3 percent). These same communities often have the highest poverty rates and are most in need of essential services. Without special, targeted outreach efforts, hundreds of thousands of our residents can go uncounted in 2020 and for the next 10 years.

We also have two additional challenges next year: the digitization of the census and the potential citizenship question. Eighty percent of households will receive postcards urging residents to complete the census online. While this may be convenient for some people, it will present challenges to many who have limited or no Internet access, or who are uncomfortable with providing information online. There will be additional options to complete the census via mail, telephone or a visit from a census enumerator, and all methods are confidential. However, many may not realize all of their options.

The controversial citizenship question has also caused a lot of concern, especially among immigrants. In March 2017, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that, for the first time in over 50 years, the 2020 census would ask the citizenship status of every person living in the country. While federal law prohibits your personal information from being shared, even with another government agency, many are understandably still concerned.

New Jersey has joined other states in a lawsuit, currently before the U.S Supreme Court, to remove the question from the census. We at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, with some of our partners, filed an amicus brief urging the court to consider the dire consequences this question could have on New Jersey’s communities of color.

Even if the question is removed, the fear and distrust of the government may remain in the minds of many, causing them to skip the entire census. Regardless of what the court ultimately decides, a broad public education campaign will be needed on this issue.

All of these challenges are steep, but they can be addressed with adequate funding. The institute, and our partners, including advocacy groups, faith leaders, and community organizers, are working to ensure that all people in New Jersey, no matter their race, status, or age are counted. However, this cannot be done without the full participation of our state government. We urge the Legislature and the governor to appropriate the necessary funds for census outreach. In testimony to the N.J. Complete Count Commission, the Institute requested $9 million – just $1 per person - of budget funding for materials, media, canvassing and training needed to supplement the under-funded Census Bureau.