2020 has finally arrived, and yet in New Jersey, the political excitement is not all that palpable. And it’s understandable. Our primary is among the latest in the country, and we will almost certainly go blue for President once again. In presidential election years, New Jersey is just not a hotbed of political consequence.
In 2020, however, this could not be further from the truth. This also happens to be a Census year, and there is so much at stake in our state. The Census is used to determine Congressional apportionment and allocation of federal funding. Since 1980, New Jersey has lost three Congressional seats, from 15, down to 12 today. (This also translates to three fewer votes in the Electoral College.) We also stand to lose billions of dollars for things like infrastructure development, housing block grants, Medicare/Medicaid, and Head Start.
A Census undercount is also a massive social justice and voting rights issue. People most at-risk of being undercounted are racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants (especially the undocumented), those with low-incomes, renters, and young children. An undercount will do so much harm in keeping these groups from receiving their fair share of political representation and services.
Essex County, in particular, should be a focal point of Census outreach in New Jersey. According to CUNY’s Center for Urban Research, only 70% of Essex County households self-responded to the Census in 2010, significantly below the statewide average of 79%. (The remaining 30% of households needed costly follow-up, or did not respond at all). In many Census tracts in the County, this number barely rose above 50%.
The good news: Essex County has received $417K from the state for Census outreach. Now, we need to know how the County Executive Office plans to spend it. How it takes action right now will determine how much representation and funding we will get over the next decade. The stakes could not be higher.