Days after their U.S. Supreme Court victory — which took on new significance Tuesday — immigrant advocates, community groups, and local governments that will try to persuade residents to participate in the 2020 Census were keeping a nerve-wracking watch on budget developments in Harrisburg and Trenton.
“We were bracing for the worst,” said Patricia Williamson, who is focusing on reaching black residents in historically undercounted communities for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
But New Jersey lawmakers approved the requested $9 million in census funding — roughly $1 per person — in the budget Gov. Phil Murphy signed on Sunday.
Pennsylvania’s legislators weren’t as accommodating, rejecting a request for nearly $13 million, also about $1 per person.
“We’re very relieved here,” Williamson said. “This was not an easy win by any means."
She added, “I hope for the best for Pennsylvania.”
Community groups in New Jersey and in other places that have set aside state funds for the 2020 Census — including New York, Maryland, and California — plan to use the money to reach communities that are less likely to fill out their census questionnaires; to help people answer census questions online; and to teach residents in their language why responding is important. They’re supplementing the U.S. Census Bureau’s efforts to do the same.
States hailed Thursday’s Supreme Court decision that temporarily blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question on the census forms, and on Tuesday the government announced that it would print the forms without the citizenship question. Some had feared the question would hold down participation.
Decennial population counts determine the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding to state and local governments, voting-district boundaries, Electoral College votes, and the number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House.
“We can’t simply count on the federal level getting it right for us," said Jo Lin, coalition manager for Keystone Counts, a group of nonprofits across Pennsylvania doing census work. "We really need to get involved.”
She said she’s trying to stay optimistic after not getting state funding and will be stepping up recruitment of local nonprofits.
“It’s not going to stop us from doing what we were going to do anyway,” she said. "It’s a little bit uphill. But the 2020 Census was always an uphill [undertaking] anyway.”
Next year’s census presents new challenges. It’s the first one that the government is striving to conduct mostly online, a hurdle for communities with low internet connectivity rates, such as Philadelphia, and comes as trust in government continues to trend downward.
Although the citizenship question isn’t appearing on the forms, communities are feeling the impact, local groups and former Census Bureau officials said.
“A lot of damage and distrust has already occurred," said Peter Chen, policy counsel for nonprofit Advocates for Children of New Jersey and a leader of a coalition of about 40 organizations aiming to get everyone counted. “It will be extremely important to rebuild that trust in immigrant communities.
“Most people were understanding of the urgency of having census funding in this year’s budget. And it’s a one-off expense,” Chen said. “Although the $9 million seems like a lot of money at the outset, when we talk about the outreach that’s needed, the money, I think, will go quite quickly.”
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said he would “work to provide as much state assistance as possible from the executive branch.”
For Census 2000, Gov. Tom Ridge’s administration allocated $300,000 for promotion and engagement. In 2010, the Rendell administration allocated no funding, but agencies were directed to support census outreach efforts through their operating budgets.
Fernando Armstrong, director of the Census Bureau’s Philadelphia Regional Office, said he knows “states are doing their own initiatives with their own funding.” But on the federal level, he said, "I don’t anticipate there will be a lack of funding.”
"Everything I have seen tells me that we have the support, the financial strength, that we need,” he said.