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Amid a pandemic, the U.S. Census Takes Place

By Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera

In an age that many people freely share their personal information online, many Americans still hesitate to provide even the most basic information on a governmental form. Every 10 years, the Census Bureau encounters the same issue of distrust and disinterest when trying to get an accurate count of every household in the country.

And this year, there’s another issue. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns that it may take longer to get an accurate count.

You may be wondering – why does it really matter whether everyone participates in the Census? If so, you wouldn’t be alone in asking that question. Many people don’t realize just how important the Census is to their community.

The fact is, Census data is used in countless ways by business owners, non-profit organizations and lawmakers to determine what daily services, products and support they will provide to communities.

For example, a non-profit aimed at helping senior citizens is more likely to choose to open a location in an area where more seniors are reported to live.

The number of people recorded in a given region also influences federal allocation of funding for school programs, infrastructure improvements and social programs such as Medicare and SNAP.

Essentially, if officials are unaware that a certain area has a higher number of residents and therefore requires more funding, programs and so on, then municipalities may go without the services they need.

That’s why I recently sponsored two resolutions to help educate the public about the Census – one (AR-79) designating March 12-22 as “Get out the Count Week” and another (AR-78) urging counties and municipalities to form Complete Count Committees that would create awareness campaigns for their communities.

In 2016, our state received over $22 billion from the federal government for a variety of important programs based on information gathered during the 2010 Census. We have to secure funding over the next ten years that correctly reflects the needs of our growing population by making sure this year’s Census is as accurate as possible.

Even New Jersey’s political influence at the federal level is affected by the Census. The amount of Congressional delegates that will represent each state is determined by population size, since the 435 seats in the House of Representatives must be divided proportionally among the 50 states.

If New Jersey is perceived as having a smaller population of residents than we actually do, we won’t be fairly represented in Washington.

Not only has a general lack of knowledge about the impact of the Census historically kept people from participating, but several misconceptions have also influenced public involvement. One of those misconceptions is that the information provided by an individual can be used against them in some way.

These worries are unfounded, however, since the point of the Census is not to entrap anyone. The one and only goal of the Census is to get the basic demographics and number of people living in our country. That’s why names and other personal identifiers are removed from any statistics the Census releases – the data is published as general information, not specifics about any particular individual.

The Bureau ensures the data it collects is kept safe through encryption and other cyber security measures. Employees are sworn to strict confidentiality, punishable by a significant fine or prison sentence if broken. Not only is every other agency barred from accessing your information, but by law, any response you give cannot be used against you by the government or judiciary courts. These protections are mandated by law and have been in place for more than 60 years. Any attempts to chip away at them have been entirely unsuccessful.

With everything to gain and nothing to lose, it’s important to make sure everyone understands what’s at stake here. Everyone needs to participate because we all depend on the programs and funding that would be diminished by an inaccurate count.

However, there are a variety of populations that are particularly hard for the Census Bureau to count, including – but not limited to – people living in non-traditional housing, complicated/blended households or rural areas and anyone from a cultural, ethnic or linguistic minority. Young children are also particularly hard to count, which can really impact our schools.

Even if you don’t personally participate in the Complete Count Committees, I encourage everyone to help raise awareness by sharing this information with the people in your social circles. The more residents who understand the realities of the Census, the better.

Every one of us stands to benefit from an accurate Census count.

This op-ed was published in The Star Ledger on March 12, 2020: