The U.S. Census is once-a-decade Constitutional requirement to count every person living in the U.S. The federal Census Bureau spends years getting ready for the count, and State and local officials have been working since 2019 to make sure everyone in New Jersey responds.
The Census data gathered this year will be used by the federal and state government to determine the allocation of $900 billion – public funds that are spent on everything from education and public health to law enforcement and transportation. Where the money goes is determine by reference to population.
as a result. Officials are determined that New Jersey must not be undercounted again this year.
“Census data also determine the distribution of political power. New Jersey was under-counted in 2010. That cost us tens of millions of dollars, and New Jersey lost a seat in Congress,” says Passaic County Freeholder John Bartlett, who has taken the lead on making sure Passaic County has a complete count. “We can’t let that happen again.”
“Count all our seniors, and there will be more federal funding for day programs, Meals On Wheels, and Paratransit, to name a few,” explained Bartlett. “Count all our children, and we can build new schools to ease overcrowded classrooms and provide other kinds of family support. Count all our workers, and we’ll get more business investment and more infrastructure funding to keep roads and bridges in good repair and make everyone’s commute a little easier.”
Census data are completely confidential. The personal information you provide cannot be shared with any other government agency. Census enumerators – the people who will go door-to-door, starting in May, to count everyone who didn’t respond – swear an oath and would face fines and prison time if they ever revealed any respondent’s personal information.
Passaic County started planning its Census 2020 outreach in early 2019 by appointing a Complete Count Committee of community leaders from across the county. With encouragement from N.J. Secretary of State Tahesha Way, numerous other counties followed suit. By convening a diverse, multi-lingual, committees, the counties hope to get the message out to groups that were particularly under-counted last time around.
“The Census Bureau calls these communities ‘hard-to-count’ or ‘HTC,’” explains Dr. Khyati Y. Joshi, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the co-chair of Passaic County’s Complete Count Committee. “Immigrant communities may be hard to count due to language barrier and the false assumption that the Census is only for U.S. citizens. College students are often hard-to-count because they don’t live in one place for very long. Children under five and senior citizens are often under-counted too.”
The counties, cities, and non-profit organizations working on the Census had planned a springtime full of outreach events – from signing people up at church coffee hours to hosting Census meals and meetings in neighborhoods and apartment buildings.
But COVID-19 and “shelter-in-place” have thrown a wrench in the works.
“The outbreak is an example of why the Census is so important: all the resources we’re using, from our public health system to law enforcement, receive funds determined in part by our Census count,” explains Miguel Diaz, a long-time Paterson community leader who co-chairs Passaic County’s committee. “But because of the outbreak, we have to find new ways to reach people. We’re training our ambassadors on Zoom now, and hosting a lot more online events.”
Passaic County kicked off April with a series of Facebook Live Q&A sessions, where committee members and U.S. Census officials answered viewers’ questions about how to respond to the Census online and by telephone. Like the committee’s other efforts, the live sessions were multilingual: English and Bengali sessions have already occurred, and future live events will be in Spanish (April 7), Arabic (April 8), and Gujarati (April 9).
The county has also made numerous videos, graphics, and fact sheets available on its website. It is encouraging community groups and anyone with a blog, social media presence, or WhatsApp group to share these resources.
“We were ready to visit houses of worship, and now we’re asking clergy to include the Census message in their e-mail newsletters,” Joshi said. “We’re also investing more in local media advertising, to replace those in-person opportunities we lost.”
“Our core message hasn’t changed: Everyone needs to #BeCounted,” Freeholder Bartlett added. “COVID-19 will pass, but our opportunity to get a complete count won’t last. It only takes 10 minutes to complete your Census survey, and the results last a decade. We need everyone’s help to spread the word and make sure their families, neighbors, and friends respond.”