Newark is Struggling to Raise its Census Count in Weeks Leading to Deadline

Rev. Ronald Slaughter, pastor for Saint James AME in Newark, said filling out the census is a crucial way residents can send a message to Washington.

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NEWARK, NJ — Free ice cream, $50 ShopRite gift cards, a DJ-maned parade float — while these might sound like favors at a birthday party, they’re really incentives that the city of Newark is dishing out to residents in an attempt to increase its lagging census count. 

With less than four weeks before the September 30 deadline, Newark’s latest count sits at 47.5%, a 19-point drop behind the state’s 66% rate. In wealthier suburbs outside the city, like Millburn, the difference is an even starker 35 points. 

Newark, a historically a hard-to-count city, and other municipalities like it are struggling to catch up in the wake of a shortened deadline, which was originally set for October 31, and months of on-the-ground outreach work lost to COVID-19. The Trump administration changed the deadline after initially extending it due to the pandemic, much to the chagrin of those working to tally the city’s undercounted populations.  

“In an area like Newark or East Orange or Irvington, we need those numbers. Our schools need those resources, our communities need them and our organizations need them,” said Rev. Ronald Slaughter, who leads St. James AME Church on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Newark. “This is our way of sending a message to Washington DC that you may think Black lives don’t matter, but by filling out the census, we’re conveying that our lives matter.” 

Taken every 10 years, the census helps secure monies that go toward schools, infrastructure, health care and more. The result of undercounting could mean billions of dollars in federal aid left on the table at the state level, including grants like the CARES Act that can act as stopgap funds in a disaster.  

Census data is also used to determine how many representatives a state receives in Congress. New Jersey previously lost a Congressional district after the last census count, which many believe was due to a lack of participation rather than population loss. 

Though cities like Newark are home to large immigrant communities, fears stoked by the current political environment have made convincing this traditionally hard-to-count population to fill out the census even more challenging, according to Craig Stanley, a former state assemblyman.  

Stanley, who attended the city’s Day of Outrage and Action census event on Tuesday with Black and Brown Lives Count, said worries about deportation are high. The Trump administration tried and failed in 2018 to include an immigration status question on the application.

In conjunction with shortening the census deadline, the president also sent out a memo requesting that undocumented immigrants not be counted in the census, also known as apportionment. Civil rights groups, local leaders and the NJ League of Women Voters filed suit over the plan in August. 

“We talk about voter suppression, but we don’t talk about census count suppression,” Stanley said. “That is clearly a violation of the Constitution.”

Linking the census to Black Lives Matter and social justice initiatives is just one more way volunteers are hoping to highlight how important the census is to Newark. Few know better perhaps than Larry Hamm, one of Newark’s most visible social justice organizers and the founder of the People’s Organization for Progress — without it, there might be no proof he was ever born. 

After his family’s home burned down in 1977, and his birth certificate with it, Hamm contacted the hospital where he was born for another copy. The hospital returned a notice saying they had searched all their records and were unable to find any documentation that Hamm was born there. 

“To this day, I do not have a birth certificate, I have a copy of the census document from 1960. That is my birth certificate,” Hamm said. “All of our political representation is based on numbers. If Newark is only at 47% on the census, that means we’re going to get less than half of the aid that we should get.” 

The city is encouraging residents to participate in the census in the following ways: 

  • Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. outside of the main branch of the Newark Public Library at 5 Washington Street, people who receive one-on-one assistance to complete the Census online will receive a gift card.
  • Newark residents who have not yet responded to the 2020 Census are being given an incentive in the form of $50 ShopRite gift cards
  •  The “Newark Census Selfie Contest,” which will run through the end of the month. Fill out the Census form online, take a creative selfie as proof it has been completed, then email to NewarkCounts@gmail.com with a #NewarkCounts hashtag. Winner receives $1,000 award. 
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