3M in N.J. still uncounted as the Census deadline approaches. Go, get counted now. | Opinion

Posted Aug 21, 2020

By Patricia D. Williamson

To say 2020 has been a challenging year is an understatement.

Between a fraught presidential election, the worst pandemic in a century and police murders of Black people exposing the cracks of structural racism in our foundation, it doesn’t look like things will let up anytime soon.

Amidst all this, you might ask, they’re asking us to think about the Census?

Yes, we are.

In fact, the Census is directly related to all of the turmoil we are living through right now.

It is the Census count that determines the electoral power of everyone, including communities of color – power that allows people to elect representatives who will address their profound interests. It is the Census count that determines the federal funding desperately needed to recover from this pandemic. And it is the Census count that allows people fair representation to choose leaders who will protect Black lives.

If you already completed the Census, great! You are in the 65% of New Jerseyans who have. If you haven’t, you still have time to do so to help your community get the essential services and political representation it deserves. As of now, the deadline is September 30.

When COVID-19 struck the United States, it was days after Census 2020 went live. Most New Jersey residents received Census letters with unique IDs as we sheltered in place. Over half of the households that completed the Census finished it by Census Day on April 1. But as of today, we are just shy of two-thirds completion.

That means there are still roughly 3 million residents who remain uncounted in our state.

There are several reasons why these New Jersey residents remain uncounted.

For one, Census outreach took a significant hit in hard-to-reach communities of color because people may have been ill, unemployed, essential workers or a combination of factors related to the pandemic. Further, as large cities such as Newark began distributing Chromebooks to their students, it became evident that many of the hard-to-reach residents did not have the digital tools or the WiFi access to continue their education at the expected levels, much less complete the Census online as the Census Bureau hoped.

In addition, the Trump Administration threatened to include a citizenship question on the Census. While that effort failed, the mere mention of citizenship in the same sentence as the Census can have a severe chilling effect on Census completion by immigrants. And while the citizenship question was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court (the Institute filed a brief in the case), a new presidential memorandum seeks to unconstitutionally exclude undocumented residents, causing yet another wave of fear among this population.

On top of all that, the Census Bureau recently agreed to the Trump Administration’s request to complete all data gathering by September 30, 2020 – a full month less than its publicized extension of October 31. And the administration has rescinded its request to Congress for a four-month extension to the statutory deadline to submit the Census data to the president, leaving the deadline at December 31, 2020 – not nearly enough time to process and deliver the data.

You’d think there was no pandemic going on at all.

But, even under these challenging circumstances, we must persevere and conduct a constitutionally required Census. While New Jersey as a whole is responding at a higher rate than the national average, many of our hardest-to-count municipalities – some with high rates of COVID-19 – are trailing.

Almost a quarter of New Jersey’s population lives in hard-to-count 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 hard-to-count tracts; these two cities also rank third and second in the nation for their percentages of Latinas/os living in hard-to-count tracts. People of color, low-income individuals, young children, immigrants, transient people and those with severe distrust or fear of the government are most likely to go uncounted.

A fair and accurate count in the 2020 Census is essential to ensure that communities across New Jersey, particularly those hard-to-count communities of color, receive the funding and representation to which they are entitled. If we have an undercount in the Census, New Jersey could see a cut in the current $45 billion of federal funding it receives, which would hurt families and communities all across the state.

The Census Bureau has started going door to door in all counties of New Jersey. While they rush to finish their work with far less time than they need – here are some ways you can help.

First, if you have not already, take the Census. Do it now: Mail it in, take it online at 2020census.gov or take it over the phone (1-844-330-2020). Assistance is available via telephone in 14 languages and on the TDD for the Hearing-impaired, and 59 additional language brochures are online. Your information is safe. It is crucial for our state that everyone is counted.

Second, call on Congress to extend the deadlines to allow the Census Bureau time to deliver a complete and unrushed count.

Third, tell everyone you know to take the Census. If you are an elected or appointed official, or have a platform, use it to spread the word.

At the end of the day, the Census is about counting in our society. And everyone – regardless of race, age, economic situation or citizenship status – counts.

Let’s get counted, New Jersey.

Patricia D. Williamson is the New Jersey Counts project director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

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