Counting on All: 2020 Census Takes to the Road

By: Mickey Brandt / SNJToday Staff Writer

BRIDGETON, N.J. — The census takers are coming soon to a block near you. And to yours.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau began its follow up information gathering in Cumberland County as part of its nationwide effort to visit households that have not yet responded to the 2020 Census.

Based on the current U.S. self-response rate of 63.3 percent, the Census Bureau estimates it will need to visit about 56 million addresses to collect responses in person. Up to 500,000 census takers across the country will go door-to-door to assist people in responding.

“America has answered the call and most households responded to the census online, by phone or by mail,” said Census Bureau Director Dr. Steven Dillingham. “To ensure a complete and accurate count, we must now go door-to-door to count all of the households we have not heard back from. During this phase, you can still self-respond online (at 2020census.gov), by phone (at 844-330-2020), or by mailing your completed questionnaire.”

About 150 workers are already trained and authorized to be census takers locally and most work in and near their own neighborhoods.

“Recruiting in Cumberland County was great,” said Jeff T. Behler, New York regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau. “We exceed our goal in hires and we are still recruiting and training.”

New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way, the head of the state Complete Count Commission, reported last week at a virtual town hall led by Gov. Phil Murphy that the state self-response rate stands at 65.4 per cent, ahead of the national average. This year is the first time the census has been available online in addition to mail, and 53 percent of the surveys in New Jersey have been filed that way. 

Cumberland County’s self-response rate has reached 62.8 percent as of August 13, according to census records provided by Kevin C. Rabago, Sr., business administrator for the City of Bridgeton. This leaves about 16,000 occupied housing units (OHU) for non-responsive follow up (NRFU) in census jargon. A disproportionate number of these are in areas termed “low response,” primarily poor and minority neighborhoods. 

In 2010, the final Cumberland County self-response rate was 66.8 percent and the state rate was 67.6 percent.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a census of the population every 10 years. It is far more than a number tally and instead has significant political and economic effects. Apportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives is based on the census count; in fact, New Jersey had 15 representatives before 1980 and then lost one in each census except in 2000, so now has 12. (This usually occurs as a result of relative population densities and not necessarily fewer persons.)

More important is that responses from the 2020 census help determine where more than $45 billon in annual federal funds to the state goes to help with community support and improvement.

Funding over the next decade in areas like transportation, road construction, career and technical programs, Pell Grants, public and private schools and colleges, wildlife restoration, environmental protection, historic preservation, small business assistance, senior housing, green spaces, law enforcement and emergency response, and safety net programs like Medicaid, SNAP, and social services for the disadvantaged are all linked to census data, according to Rabago.

At the town hall, Murphy made a sustained plea for participation in the census process.

“We know we were undercounted in 2010,” he said. “We can’t let that happen again because it cost us untold billions of dollars in the decade.”

Way pointed out a unique census factor at this critical time.

“COVID-19, for example, shows what the impact of the census results can be—the number of hospital beds available and the number of first responders deployed are partially determined by the count,” she said.

Since the safety net programs tied to the census count benefits poor and minority households more than others, most observers believe it is especially important that these areas be fully tallied, despite their handicaps of being hard-to-count and having a depressed self-response rate.

If our county and state end up undercounted, it won’t be for lack of trying. Complete Count organizations were launched nationwide last year to help educate the public of the importance of the census and promote participation, especially among hard-to-count populations. The local committee has held about 20 outreach events just since July 24 and has another dozen scheduled, all to increase census participation. The “Census Bus” gathers self-responses as it appears at events and travels throughout the county.

The festive and informative outdoor gatherings have ranged from a barbecue hosted by Gateway CAP in Bridgeton to youth basketball games in Fairfield Township to a community yard sale and shredding event in Downe Township. A mobile billboard promoting census response regularly tours the county.

“Local leaders like those in Cumberland County are our trusted partners,” said Behler. “Folks respond better to their pastors, community service leaders, and restaurant owners, for example, than they do to people they don’t know. The reason New Jersey is where it is in response rate is the work of our partners.”

Bridgeton Mayor Albert B. Kelly, a prominent and insistent voice in Complete Count since mid-2019, summed up the stakes in a recent SNJ Today newspaper column.

“It is critically important that all residents respond to the census,” he wrote.  “How much of the federal pie we get and how many resources are made available to us for key projects here in Cumberland County over the next 10 years will largely be decided in the next few weeks.”

For more information and to apply for a local census job, go to 2020census.gov. You may self-respond to the census by returning your questionnaire by mail, filing online at 2020census.gov, or calling 844-330-2020. The deadline is September 30, 2020.


This article was contributed by SNJToday.