Accurate census count in N.J. needs state money, governor is told

This March 23, 2018, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census. (Michelle R. Smith/AP Photo)

This March 23, 2018, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 Census. (Michelle R. Smith/AP Photo)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

As Gov. Phil Murphy is set to unveil tomorrow his spending plan for the next fiscal year, a host of nonprofit and advocacy groups are urging him to include money to bolster the count of New Jersey’s population in the 2020 U.S. Census.

More than 40 organizations representing children, schools, the cities and others sent Murphy a letter last Friday asking him to set aside $9 million in next year’s budget to fund efforts to try to ensure the most accurate population count. Murphy signed into law a Complete Count Commission, whose goal is to recommend a strategy and help administer an outreach program.

On the line are roughly $22 billion in federal funding and the number of representatives New Jersey gets to send to Congress, as well as the boundaries of state legislative districts, which are determined by the decennial census count. A higher population count could make the state eligible for more federal funding and could prevent New Jersey from losing another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives like it did in 2010.

“Although the Census seems abstract, data collected from the Census influences almost all federal formula funding grants and policy decisions,” the groups wrote in their letter. “Even a slight undercount could lead to decreased federal funding, not just in FY2021 but for a full decade to follow. New Jersey is routinely at the bottom of the list of states in collecting federal spending, a figure that will not improve without an accurate Census count. New Jersey cannot afford an undercount in 2020.”

The advocates state that about 22 percent of New Jersey residents, or about 1.9 million people, live in hard-to-count areas, including a disproportionate number of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and children under age 5. New Jersey had nearly 500 hard-to-count census tracts in 2010. A tract is a geographic area of between 2,500 and 8,000 people; one in which fewer than 73 percent of people answered the census was considered hard-to-count. These were in all but three counties — Hunterdon, Sussex, and Warren. Many were in cities like Newark, Camden, and Paterson.

Were we undercounted or overcounted 2010?

The census bureau estimates that in 2010 it missed counting 31,000 New Jersey residents or less than four-tenths of 1 percent of the total population. But figuring in the margin of error, that undercount could have been as high as 181,100 people — or the census might have overcounted the state’s population by as much as 119,000.

Counting the population is difficult. The census currently estimates the state’s population at 8.9 million, which is about 100,000 fewer residents than it had guessed lived in New Jersey in 2017. Census estimates do not show a population decrease — the 2010 census pegged the number at 8.79 million — but officials downgraded their previous estimates when they released the current figures last December.

The 27-member commission the state has established is similar to groups created in other states to try to ensure the accuracy of their counts. Some $500,000 was allocated to the commission this year, said Trudi Gilfillan, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office. The advocates say that is not enough for advertising and outreach efforts in multiple languages aimed at the hard-to-count and that California, Illinois, Maryland and Georgia so far have committed millions to their own census outreach efforts.

Chaired by Tahesha Way, the secretary of state, New Jersey’s commission held its first meeting January 9 and has scheduled its next for March 21 at Passaic County Community College in Paterson. It is charged with presenting a report, outlining its outreach suggestions, to Murphy by June 30.

In their letter, the advocacy groups state that whatever plan the commission devises will need “adequate funding in the FY2020 state budget to successfully complete an accurate count of all residents, particularly those in hard-to-count areas.” The groups say the $9 million could pay for “communications efforts in multiple media and languages, public forums and multiple in-person discussions, and local ‘get out the count’ campaigns in hard-to-count communities.”

‘Enormous dividends’ of an accurate count

Spending may be tight in the next budget — tax collections so far have not risen at the pace the current state budget needs to remain balanced. But in their letter, the organizations note the $9 million would be a one-time expense equal to less than 0.01 percent of the total budget “but could pay enormous dividends.” Federal funds for healthcare, education, nutrition, infrastructure and housing are all distributed based on census counts.

“Almost every federal program supporting children and families depends on Census data, including health insurance through Medicare or Medicaid, Title I and special education funding for schools, Head Start, food stamps, school meals, highway construction and housing vouchers or loans,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, one of the letter’s signatories. “An undercount could starve these programs of critical funding.”

An undercount could also lead the state to lose another congressional representative, which would further blunt New Jersey’s power in Washington, D.C. A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows New Jersey’s population grew at the 12th slowest rate of all states over the last decade, although it outpaced neighboring New York and Pennsylvania. New Jersey lost a House representative in 2010 when its population growth was slower than that of other states. Currently, the state has 12 members of the House, three fewer than 35 years ago.

New Jersey and other states face potentially serious challenges to an accurate count next year. These include reduced spending by the federal government on census outreach and the census bureau’s first-ever online questionnaire; past censuses were conducted by mail and in person. (Not all, but a majority of people will be expected to file online.)

Of special concern in New Jersey, where the population of undocumented residents is estimated at 475,000, is the continuing specter of a citizenship question. Ruling on a lawsuit New Jersey had joined, a federal judge in New York six weeks ago blocked the census bureau from asking everyone’s citizenship status, but that decision could still be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Democrats and civil rights advocates said that asking about citizenship status, particularly during the current climate in which federal immigration agents have stepped up efforts to deport undocumented immigrants, likely would reduce participation in the census.

While the commission’s report is due in less than four months, the state and advocacy groups will have some nine months to implement their outreach efforts. The official census count occurs on April 1, 2020.

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