JERSEY CITY and PATERSON, NJ – Between taking exams, navigating college applications, and transitioning to virtual learning during the coronavirus outbreak, high schoolers nationwide faced their share of hurdles this spring. 

But a group of teens from New City Kids, a music based after-school program in Jersey City and Paterson, have used the last three chaotic months to raise awareness for a survey that could bring them greater funding for social programs and affect their representation in Congress: the 2020 Census. They released “A Better Future,” a rap music video with nearly 70,000 views outlining the advantages of accurate population data.

“So many of the resources that end up providing support to the communities we live in…[come] through the channel of the census,” Jeremy Jerschina, executive director of New City Kids: Paterson, said. Following weeks spent writing the song and brainstorming ways to convey the importance of completing the form, Jerschina explained that the group filmed its project in Jersey City and released it on YouTube in April. 

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The organization received a grant through the New Jersey Department of State that allowed them to finance the campaign. Already, the student musicians have seen their work achieve its desired effect.

Tykia Williams, a Jersey City native, rising first-year at William Paterson University, and intern for New City Kids, described that people have been enthusiastic about her activism after seeing her perform in the music video.

“They’re saying…‘now I think I should go fill out the census because it would really help out our community, especially with most of our schools not having the right funding,’” Williams said. 

Education is one of several potential beneficiaries of a higher count. Paterson 4th Ward Councilmember Ruby Cotton elaborated that cities could also see improvements to infrastructure, policing, affordable housing, youth programs, and parks. 

Despite the upsides, convincing skeptics to participate has proved challenging. 

“I think that sometimes, people who are not legal residents…[are] afraid to sign anything or put their names down thinking some consequence is going to happen to them,” Cotton said. She speculated that non-citizens fear the government will use their alien status against them, even though their answers are protected by law. 

All told, the U.S. Census Bureau allocates nearly $700 billion for states and municipalities based on the survey’s results, which means towns lose over $2,000 in services per unrecorded person according to Inge Spungen, executive director of the Paterson Alliance. In addition to public mistrust, she voiced concern that the coronavirus could lower response rates. 

“People just don’t have the time and wherewithal,” Spungen said. “They’re too busy trying to find what they need for their day-to-day living because of [COVID-19].” 

The pandemic has left many Patersonians with income and food insecurities that Spungen believes outweigh their motivation for finishing the form. And even though this year’s census is available online for the first time ever, Spungen suspected that a lack of internet access in Paterson and Jeresy City households may further obstruct the population tally in a historically undercounted city.

But she added that local initiatives like the New City Kids’ advocacy help regain people’s interest in the questionnaire. 

“One of the things that we have tried from the beginning is to find trusted leaders, people with trusted voices in the community to share information about the census…and one of the things that this video does is bring that level of trust to the message,” Spungen said.  

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