In NJ, 2020 census could already be in trouble

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Shirleen literally makes her home on the street in Newark’s West Ward. Her fraught living conditions put her in a group the 2020 census will find hard to count when the nation tallies up all its residents. They don’t connect.

“You know, a lot of people don’t understand the benefits from the census and how it can help our community,” said Newark resident Iris Wiggins.

“She’s supposed to to be counted. But there are folks who aren’t going to walk up here and count her if we don’t do it, because everybody’s supposed to be counted. We don’t care whether you’re in jail, whether you’re walking down the street, whether you’re the homeless population, it’s important under the United States Constitution that we get that count,” said Essex County Sen. Ron Rice, who also chairs the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus.

Rice notes many in low-income, urban, minority populations become statistical ghosts. While the last census overcounted non-Hispanic whites by 0.8 percent nationally, analysis shows it undercounted minorities — Hispanics by 1.5 percent and blacks by 2.1 percent.

A map shows swaths of undercounted areas in New Jersey concentrated over urban areas where less than a 73 percent responded to census forms sent by U.S. mail. In Rice’s district, only 67 percent responded. New Jersey ranked eighth among states with hard-to-count populations, according to Mapping Service Director at the CUNY Graduate Center Steven Romalewski.

“About 20 percent of the state’s population lives in hard-to-count communities. That’s not evenly distributed around the state. Most of those hard to count communities are in some of the bigger cities in New Jersey — Newark, Trenton, Paterson, Camden,” said Romalewski.

Census compliance could be further compromised by a recent request by the Department of Justice to add a “question regarding citizenship.” According to DOJ, “This data is critical to the department’s enforcement of … the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.”

Not an unprecedented request, but problematic nonetheless

“This is really late in the game to all of a sudden change the questionnaire. It makes it very risky in an environment that’s already pretty precarious,” Romalewski said of the DOJ request.

Immigration advocate Giancarlo Tello predicts a chilling effect.

“Even if I’m a citizen, you ask me, like, ‘Hey, are you a citizen? And, you know, what about everyone else in your household?’ I’m going to be like, ‘Hmmm, let me not mention them. Let me ask you to leave at this point. Let me not talk to you,'” said Tello.

Tello says it’s compounded by the president’s hard-line stance on immigration, including raids by ICE and forced deportations.

“You might not want to answer the door. You might not tell them that people live there. And then all of a sudden that lowers the count of how many people actually live in that city, how much aid we’re going to get, how much representation we’re going to get in our government,” said Tello.

That’s because our once-a-decade headcount determines how much federal money and how many members of Congress each state gets. New Jersey dropped one congress member in 2010, from 13 to 12. And the upcoming census faces particular challenges. Critics call it underfunded, sparsely-tested, and the first to use online census forms. Rice says cities should pay locals to canvas for the census.

“We can get people to do it, but we would have to have a budget for that. Because one thing about the folks who live in Newark, we’re not afraid to walk our own streets and ask questions,” said Rice.

When it comes to the census, you’ve got to get those numbers right the first time, authorities say, because there are no do-overs. So whatever numbers you get, you need to live with for the next 10 years.