Camden’s population a decade ago was 77,344, according to the 2010 census. But Mayor Francisco Moran knows that wasn’t right.
"I can tell you there are thousands of folks who have not allowed themselves to be counted,” he said at a forum Wednesday night in Camden, where local residents and statewide nonprofit groups expressed concerns about the ensus, which begins next March.
Communities across the country are working to make sure all their residents are counted, since population determines how the federal government distributes hundreds of billions of dollars to local governments, how voting districts are drawn, and how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House.
Local governments have formed commissions to explain the importance of filling out questionnaires and reach populations that are traditionally undercounted.
At the New Jersey Complete Count Commission’s last scheduled meeting of the year Wednesday, residents raised questions that echoed concerns expressed throughout the country. They included:
What role will the proposed citizenship question play?
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments as it decides whether the 2020 census can ask for residents’ citizenship status. The court’s conservative majority seemed willing to defer to the Trump administration’s plan to do so.
Dozens of state and local governments and the Census Bureau believe the citizenship question could deter millions of people, especially immigrants, from answering the questionnaires. That would depress population counts and diminish the political power and funding of local governments, particularly those with large immigrant populations.
Federal judges in Maryland, California, and New York — where Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Philadelphia joined others in suing the Trump administration — have ruled against the addition of the question.
The Trump administration argues that the question is necessary to know how many residents are citizens.
Jesselly De La Cruz, executive director of the Latino Action Network Foundation, asked that state and local governments focus on earning the confidence of communities shaken by the prospect of the citizenship question. The Census Bureau has emphasized that federal law prohibits it from sharing personal information it collects.
Local governments are recruiting “trusted community leaders” to persuade residents to fill out census forms.
Regardless of whether the question shows up on forms next year, Census Bureau employees have said damage already has been done in terms of creating a climate of mistrust around the census.
Will the resources be available?
Peter Chen, policy counsel at Newark, N.J.-based Advocates for Children of New Jersey, noted that other states have already distributed millions of dollars to nonprofits for census outreach in their communities. He urged New Jersey to quickly get money to organizations.
"This is going to require an enormous effort,” Chen said.
Two bills introduced in the Senate and Assembly in February ask for $9 million for New Jersey groups to help get residents counted.
How will the Census Bureau reach hard-to-count communities?
Each decennial census undercounts certain populations, such as young children whom adults may not think to include, people who move often, people who are homeless, people living in poverty, and racial and ethnic minorities.
Governments across the country have been working on strategies to persuade hard-to-count populations to fill out their questionnaires. Those plans include working with faith and community leaders, translating information into many languages, collaborating with schools to teach students and parents about the census, and opening census offices in areas where participation in the past was low.
For example, in one census tract in Camden, less than one-third of residents filled out their forms in 2010. So they’re getting special attention.
Moran, Camden’s mayor, said an accurate count in Camden “is paramount to us.”
"The strain on services in the city is tough for us when we have limited resources,” he said.
Who will do the counting?
The Census Bureau plans to hire from 400,000 to 450,000 census takers to follow up with people who do not fill out their questionnaires.
Cheryl Bolden, a supervisory partnership specialist for the Census Bureau, reassured New Jersey Complete Count commissioners and residents that the bureau is hiring people to work in their own neighborhoods for these positions.
"We are totally and completely dependent upon local involvement,” she said.
Most of the bureau’s job fairs have been in North Jersey, but Bolden said more will be coming to South Jersey.