PATERSON, NJ – Despite an abrupt mid-October end to the 2020 U.S. Census, efforts to get a more accurate count of Paterson’s population are being viewed as a success. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the count was scheduled to be finished by the end of July, but in April the bureau said it needed to extend its timeline and push back its completion to Oct. 31.
With counting efforts already delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it left less than two months to try and reach people of color, immigrants, renters and other historically undercounted groups that are unlikely to fill out a census form on their own.
In response, the city ramped up outreach efforts, reminding residents to take a few minutes to fill out their forms and stressing the importance of a complete count.
The Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the Trump Administration could immediately halt the process of gathering census information in the field, blocking a lower court order that the count should continue until Oct. 31 to make up for time lost during the pandemic.
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh admitted he was disappointed the count was cut short as the city entered its final push and prevented them from pursuing several other “ambitious efforts,” such as continued engagement with schools and local houses of worship.
Nonetheless, Sayegh said he believed the community “really rallied,” adding that efforts have included a socially distanced parade, outreach and enumerators hitting the streets.
“I feel we got to a good number relative to our overall response rate,” the mayor said referring to a 54.9 percent self-response rate that left the city only a few points behind 2010’s final effort that included both self-response and the efforts of enumerators. .
After pointing out the count’s deadline had shifted quite a few times, Inge Spungen, executive director of the Paterson Alliance, said there was “not a lot of surprise” at the latest development. “We were expecting it,” said Spungen, a member of the city’s Complete Count Committee, a group tasked with promoting census participation.
While the committee had a few more events scheduled through the end of the month to reach even more people, Spungen said they feel good about the outcome. “I hope and believe we got a lot more people counted than in 2010,” she said. “I believe there’s more people in the city than 146,000 people."
Responses to the census are used by the federal government to determine population, how citizens are represented, how congressional and legislative districts are drawn, and where more than $45 billion in annual federal funding will go in New Jersey.
Spungen estimated that every Patersonian counted means an additional $2,500 in federal aid for social services, healthcare and education funding.
In Paterson, Sayegh said the funding could have numerous uses, including building new schools to address overcrowding issues in existing buildings, resurfacing busy roadways and investing in public safety.
Additionally, the mayor has pointed out, businesses use census data to determine where to build stores, offices and manufacturing facilities and developers will look to the data when planning new construction.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Spungen said, “So many people stepped up and reached out mainly through social media first and then at live events later.”
Efforts included: poster contests at the schools to promote the count, encouraging residents to take “census selfies” and stationing enumerators at food distribution events at local schools.
Spungen believes their work was successful not just because it reminded people to participate, but also because it helped create and strengthen ties between Patersonians.
“It helped build community and a lot of friendships were made,” said Spungen, adding that she enjoyed watching people working together “for a common cause.”
“It was a community-wide event and effort and we look forward to seeing the results when published,” she said. Already challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, Paterson’s Complete Count Committee faced other obstacles when it came to encouraging participation.
Paterson is among the Garden State’s “hard-to-count” communities, which are areas where a low percentage of residents complete the census, according to according to an estimate by The Fund for New Jersey, a public policy group.
In Paterson, the state’s third largest city, 84% of residents live in hard-to-count neighborhoods, U.S. Census Bureau data shows. The city’s population includes 72 ethnic groups and 35 languages.
There are also high poverty levels and many young children, factors that result in the city being designated as “hard-to-count.” Other groups likely to be missed include immigrants and people in multi-family housing.
Spungen said one reason for the low participation rate is fear that it’s unsafe. The other is that people don’t understand the importance of the count. “So many people are fearful of the government for a number of reasons – immigration or because they come from places where the government is just very intrusive,” she said.
“Trust has to be earned. Unfortunately, a lot of things have happened to diminish that trust,” she said.
In order to reach the “hard-to-count” neighborhoods, the committee partnered local organizations, religious institutions, businesses, mayor’s offices and other officials to conduct educational outreach.
Spungen said they worked with about 130 “trusted leaders” who “went across the scope of all different communities.”
The committee’s goal, she said, was to spread the word about the benefits of completing the census, in terms of aid and services the city could get, as well as legislative representation the area could gain. They also sought to communicate that the census is secure and safe, and that the information will not be used against anyone.
During the 2010 Census, 67.6% of New Jersey responded, far below the national rate of 74%. About 59% of Paterson residents participated in the count.
As a result, in 2013, the state lost a seat in the House of Representatives, after losing another a decade earlier. New Jersey now has 12 congressional districts – the lowest number since 1933 – which limits the state’s impact on federal decisions.
Following the news that the U.S. Supreme Court decided to allow the count to end early, Paterson Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly called it a “disgrace.”
He warned that “an incomplete count for residents in cities and states around the country will translate into thousands of dollars in federal funding missed, aid people will truly need to get through this pandemic.”
Know a story we should share with readers? Email editor Steve Lenox and tell him about it.