As we approach the finish line for the 2020 Census, enumerators in New Jersey are facing serious obstacles to achieving a fair and complete count.
A shortened deadline, fewer enumerators (formerly known as census takers) than planned due to the pandemic and fears of completing the census—particularly in the Latino community—sparked by actions and words of the Trump administration, are just a few of the hurdles in the way of an accurate count. The U.S. Census, completed every 10 years, “is designed to count every resident,” to determine apportionment of seats in U.S. House of Representatives and to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds to local communities, according to census.gov.
“There’s a concern from many, especially in the immigrant population, about privacy and security, especially when our current administration had, in many of our minds, been undermining the process: first, by trying to include the citizenship question, and lately by shortening the deadline,” says Princeton councilwoman Leticia Fraga, who is handling census activities in the town.
The Trump administration, Fraga continues, is “also asserting that members who do not have legal residency shouldn’t be counted. Many in our community will hear that and will think, what’s the point?”
Manuel Hernandez, president and a founder of the Latino Merchants Association and the owner of a construction and HVAC company in Trenton’s Chambersburg, who has been helping with the census since last year, says, “It’s been tough because a lot of people are afraid something is going to happen to them, that the government is going to come after them because they are not legally here. We have convinced a bunch of people, but some, after long conversations, we haven’t been able to convince.”
“Especially because of what the president is saying—he says one thing and does another—they think somebody is going to show up at the door and take them and deport them. Also a lot don’t understand the importance of the census,” Hernandez says.
To respond to the immigrants’ fears, says Eduardo Gittens, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and co-chair of the Trenton Complete Count Committee, “We enlisted the assistance of trusted partners; one being the Latino Merchants Association—different businesses and business owners that have a great relationship with the Latino community. They’ve worked closely with us passing out information, putting out a positive message in how the census will be able to assist them; and assuring them that their information will not be shared and they don’t have to fear any repercussions.”
Recently the Census Bureau, at the behest of the Trump administration, shortened the deadline for counting U.S. residents from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, at a virtual “census rally” on Aug. 13, said, “Because of the federal government’s decision to shorten the window, census workers will have less time to do their work. We were undercounted in 2010, and it cost us untold billions of dollars in the decade since.” As a result, he added, “we must redouble our efforts.”
As of Aug. 18, most towns in Mercer County had percentage response rates in the 70s; outliers were West Windsor at 81.6%, Ewing at 67.4%, and Trenton at 44.3%. Percentages in Princeton, Lawrence, West Windsor, and Bordentown were higher than the final 2010 self-response rate; in Hopewell, Hamilton, and Robbinsville they were close; but three areas were more significantly behind: Pennington by 6.9%, Ewing by 4.8 %, and Trenton by 9.3%.
Patricia Williamson, the New Jersey Counts Project Director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, who is focused on the 11 hard-to-count cities in New Jersey, of which Trenton is one, says, “We needed those extra four weeks to get those people [Latinos]. It takes a 20-minute conversation to help them understand what’s going on.” Hard-to-count areas are those with housing units that are vacant, multifamily, and renter-occupied housing units, student housing, and residents with low incomes, and student housing, according to Michael Ruger, deputy mayor of Hopewell Township.
Regarding the shortened deadline, Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes issued a statement to Community News Service: “Mercer County opposes this shortsighted decision by the federal government.”
One reason that completion rates are not higher, Ewing councilwoman Jennifer Keyes-Maloney says, is that “people don’t necessarily understand why they have to fill out the census.” Someone close to her, for example, thought she didn’t have to complete the census because she didn’t have children.
Another person told Fraga she didn’t realize the census applied to her because she rents. And where multiple families live in one household, “they think because they are not on the lease, they don’t count,” Fraga said.
Williamson says that immigrants and people of color “tend to not report children under five out of safety.” Sometimes children are not supposed to be living where they actually are. Or there are too many people in a home, and residents are afraid that if their landlord finds out, they will have to be separated. Some parents are not documented and afraid to mention their children.
Other people don’t understand the value of counting their children—even in suburban areas, Williamson says. “They don’t realize when they start having overcrowded schools and don’t know why that was happening, that’s because lots of kids who were not accounted for when they were one or two are now in schools and in sports.”
Even legal immigrants are sometimes afraid to complete the census, Williamson continues, because “they are concerned they are in a mixed family or that their paperwork won’t hold up.”
But, of course, the census is mandated to count all residents of the United States. “It doesn’t matter if a person is living by themselves with a dog or cat; anybody should answer,” Keyes-Maloney says.
As of Aug. 18 response rates for households in hard-to-county cities in New Jersey range from 41.7% for Atlantic City to 55% for Plainfield; Trenton’s rate was 44.2%, and the state was at 65.8%. “They are all in this race trying to get into the 50s—still only reaching 50% of the funding they truly need,” Williamson says, adding that an estimate is never as good as the actual.
With so much left to do, the census faces yet another big problem: the coronavirus has reduced the number of enumerators available to go door to door to households that have not completed the census. According to Hughes, the original 500 enumerators hired for the county dwindled to 300 due to the virus and its effects: retirees were concerned about contracting the virus and spreading it to their significant others; other people sought other employment because of the delay in going door-to-door; and even young and middle-aged individuals were nervous about virus exposure and the potential to spread it to their households, many of which included elderly family members.
“Although the bureau continues to hire replacement workers, time is running out for extensive training, so the reduced workforce seems to be what we have to work with until Sept. 30,” Hughes wrote. As a consequence of the reduction in time and number of enumerators, they will be making only two visits to a household before moving on rather than the original projected five visits.
Undercounting is not something new, Williamson said during the governor’s census rally, “Black people have been undercounted since the census began; they were first illegally undercounted by the Constitution [where each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation].”
Williams highlights the differences between the urban communities where she has been focusing and the suburban towns that have far better census completion numbers. “Suburban communities tend to understand the value of taking the census and the importance; the outreach isn’t as necessary.” In these communities, most people complete the census because they know it is a constitutional requirement and that a proper count is the basis of representation and of funding for federal programs.
In urban communities, where many people don’t realize how the services they use are funded, education is the first step in promoting census.
But, Williamson says, “even after that, there’s the issue of the fear and distrust of the government.” Whether from hearsay or by observation, they believe “that if they take the census and they do something the government wants them to do they are going to be adversely impacted.”
Although this has always been an issue, Williamson says, in the current decade “certain people in the current leadership have made people such as immigrants in particular and people of color feel that they are not valued, and with immigrants, that they are not welcome and if they are giving their information to the same government, that government might deport them. It is very hard to separate the Census Bureau from ICE and from the IRS.”
“What I do is try to debunk certain myths about the census so people can understand it is not about other parts of the government; it is purely statistical and confidential—your information remains within the Census Bureau and statistics are provided to ensure you get proper services,” Williamson says.
When she reaches out to people in these communities, she tells them that any issues they may have with the Internal Revenue Service or Immigration and Customs Enforcement are “separate from being counted, from letting the census know you exist. Because you exist, regardless of your standing or status, you are eating, using services, sending your children to our schools, going to hospitals, and going to stores.”
Today, making sure the census is completed involves a broad community effort, in tandem with the Census Bureau and centered on complete count committees, which the Census Bureau website describes as “a broad spectrum of government and community leaders from advocacy, education, business, healthcare, and elected officials” who “develop and implement a 2020 Census awareness campaign based upon their knowledge of the local community.”
The efforts in the Trenton area are illustrative of the communal effort to obtain as large a census count as possible. A group of nonprofit partners have been working together to promote the census, including Arm in Arm, Children’s Futures, the Latino Merchants Association, A Better Way, the YMCA of Greater Mercer County, Shiloh Baptist Church, Isles, and the United Way.
“It’s been wonderful working with all of the other nonprofits—it’s a collaboration of nonprofits all trying to achieve the same thing,” says Terry West, community development specialist for the Office of the Executive in Mercer County. They have also gotten houses of worship to share census messaging during their virtual services.
The complete count committees have been promoting self-response, via telephone, hard copy, or online, and then enumeration is supposed to help fill in the gaps. “Our efforts are big blanket educational and information efforts, to explain why the census is important and educate people to participate,” West says. Then in mid-August the census bureau’s enumeration teams, who know exactly which addresses haven’t responded, took over with door-to-door efforts.
Mercer County has 21 hard-to-count census tracts, with 19 in Trenton and two in Hamilton on the border of Trenton. Early on, West and his community helpers were using lists of registered voters from the superintendent of elections to knock on doors in Chambersburg, now a predominantly Spanish-speaking community with many undocumented immigrants from Central America.
“As we were out there we noticed dozens of houses in Chambersburg [not on their list] where there were families and started to focus on those on the second wave in early March,” West says.
In an effort to reach the occupants of these residences, the complete count committee also did an ad campaign based on community stakeholders widely familiar to different parts of the Trenton community: for example, a board member for Trent House and for Mercer Cemetery from the Polish community and the coordinator of Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market to reach a younger generation. “The hope was you could identify,” West says.
Similarly, they designed door hangers with a Trenton resident and her son on one side and the director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Mercer County with his son.
“We spent time thinking about the best way, in the shortest amount of time, to grab attention, promote the census, and let people know that it’s necessary and safe,” West says.
They also initiated a bilingual postcard campaign where they hand-wrote messages to those hardest to count. Helping them out were the League of Women Voters; A Better Way, whose executive director, Perry Shaw, was instrumental in getting the cards completed, labeled, and mailed; and the Latino Merchants Association, which covered the Spanish-speaking community. They successfully sent out 30,000 postcards during the pandemic.
The Trenton committee has also been very active on social media, particularly in Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where they are currently doing a countdown noting the number of days until the end of the census. Each day they feature a different area where census data translates to money for community services: healthcare, public education, community block grants, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
As restrictions have started to lighten, census officials and volunteers in Trenton, armed with tablets to enable immediate completion of the census and census literature, have met with people outdoors, near senior centers, low-income apartment complexes, and food banks.
During the week of Aug. 10 in Princeton volunteers began to distribute census information through the Princeton Mobile Food Pantry and the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood free store, and when they got their hands on census swag like t-shirts, tote bags, and credit card holders they used these to incentivize participation.
“Our best efforts have been going to food distribution sites, where we bring gift bags and talk about the importance of the census,” West says. Using this approach, they can usually convince 30 to 50 individuals and on occasion 100 to participate in the census.
“Sometimes giving people something helps them realize we are with you on this and they would at least listen to us and have a conversation,” Williamson says.
Among senior communities understanding where the dollars go, whether for food programs, Medicaid, or highways, is a motivator to complete the census, Gittens says.
For West, a very effective technique has involved explaining the amount of money that comes back to the community per person who is counted in the census. approximately $1,800 per year per person for 10 years. For a family of five, that comes to $90,000.
Although officials from the Census Bureau have expressed confidence that they have enough employees to complete their job by Sept. 30, Williamson does not agree.
“At this point the people who have not responded did not intend to respond—now we’re back to the people who are not doing it either because of misunderstanding of the importance of the census or fear or distrust of the government,” Williamson says.