As New Jersey’s communities of color and immigrant population grow, state agencies worry the upcoming 2020 Census may be the most inaccurate count of our time. They worry it could leave hundreds of thousands in the shadows and tens of millions of federal dollars on the table.
“It’s going to be particularly hard to count in 2020 if the citizenship question is left on it. We have a lot of fear in Paterson. There are a lot of legal immigrants and illegal immigrants, but who are living with the overhang of, ‘Will somebody show up at my door and deport me or my family member?’” said Jennifer Brady, executive director of Oasis.
Official census questions are still being finalized, but many fear the threat of including citizenship status. A seemingly underprepared administration threaten its accuracy. Census counts determine everything from the mapping of congressional and state legislative districts to the funneling of nearly $600 billion in federal dollars, about $17 billion of which goes to New Jersey.
“We’re at risk for being underrepresented by our government officials. We’re also at risk for being underfunded in terms of housing money, social services, food, school lunch programs and health services,” Brady said.
So state lawmakers created the Complete Count Commission. The legislation is awaiting Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature. Once signed, it’ll consist of 27 members who would be tasked with developing and recommending outreach strategies to encourage full participation.
“Two members from black caucus, two members from the Latino caucus, appointments by the Senate president, the speaker, community-based partners, as well as both political parties from the Democratic side and the Republican side,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter.
Lawmakers like Sumter will partner with nonprofits, like Oasis, places that often have access to and the pulse of the underrepresented.
“The average household income of a family who’s coming to our programs is $16,000 a year, so our families really rely on the benefits that they get on their government assistance programs. And if those are cut, that could be disastrous for many of our families who are living on the fringe already,” Brady said.
According to a study from The Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York, New Jersey is in an especially fragile position this go around because roughly 22 percent, or 1.9 million, of residents are in what are called “hard-to-count” areas. The Census Bureau deems an area “hard-to-count” if the mail return rate from the last census count was 73 percent or less.
Almost all of the state’s major cities are “hard-to-count neighborhoods” and it’s where the state’s most diverse and ethnic populations reside. It means the Census Bureau has to do costly in-person follow ups and puts residents at risk of being missed. The 2020 Census will also be the first time residents can respond on the internet, using a phone or computer.
“What’s different now is we have social media that needs to be a part of this process. We need to also be able to target a mass number of people in a safe space,” said Sumter.
In Paterson, a city with high unemployment and with many single parents relying on federal assistance, not counting them is a risk advocates say they can’t afford.