The census in a pandemic: Being counted is more important than ever, officials say

The 2020 U.S. Census form.
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By Tyler Barth

Officials across the country say it’s crucial for everyone to be counted in the U.S. Census. The coronavirus is demonstrating just how crucial–right here in Morris County.

The county is just 8,000 residents short of qualifying for up to $90 million in federal relief aid.

Conducted every 10 years, the census allows towns to receive their “fair share of funding, services, and congressional representation,” according to a flyer from the Town of Morristown.

It also provides temporary jobs for an army of door-to-door census-takers. But like most lines of work, this one has taken a hit during the pandemic, as the census has moved online for 2020.

In the past, the census has hired as many as 630,000 temporary workers as field enumerators, field supervisors, office accountants, and more.

On March 18, however, the federal government suspended all census fieldwork due to the spread of COVID-19, costing these potential temporary employees the chance to make some summer money.

In 2010, working for the census paid as much as $21 an hour.

“I did census last year and was hired for this year,” said Wharton resident Jim Grueter, who was involved in a preliminary phase in 2019. “The training was to be in May but they called and asked if I am still interested and they don’t know when anything will start.”

After each census, congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn. An accurate population count also helps state and federal governments decide how to distribute aid, as demonstrated in the current crisis.

Congressional, state and county lawmakers are lobbying for a waiver of rules that require New Jersey counties to have at least 500,000 residents to qualify for up to $90 million in COVID-19 aid from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Going forward, the 2020 census will impact cities and towns in many ways, according to Morristown town Administrator Jillian Barrick.

“Many sources of our federal funding are based on our population,” said Barrick, citing schools, transportation and healthcare as critical areas.

Fill out your online census form here. The form is available in 60 languages.

Or call 844-330-2020;

customer service agents are available to speak in 14 languages.

Under-counting is a perennial concern.

The 1970 census missed 2.5 percent of the population, reported the Daily Record in 1980.

A 2.5 percent increase now would put Morris County over the threshold to qualify for the coronavirus aid.

With that relief, “we’d be left to beg the state,” said Morris County Communications Director Larry Ragonese. “We need to reach out to people who are kind of on the fringes of our society” to be counted.

The COVID-19 outbreak has hit Morris County hard. Its death rate for those diagnosed with the virus is about a 33 percent higher than the rest of the state.

Overall, Morris County has the ninth most cases and eighth highest death count, as of May 9, 2020.

“Getting a full count is vital, it lasts for a decade but really longer,” continued Ragonese. “Whatever they determine in this census right now, that will effect you beyond 2030, it’ll be about 2032 or 2033 before they start the next census process.”

He acknowledged the challenge of getting that message across during a pandemic. “I don’t think everyone’s first train of thought is, ‘let’s do the census.'”

This time, the regular census is the short form, consisting of only 10 questions. A more extensive questions list, called the American Community Survey, will be sent to 2 or 3 percent of the population. According to Brian Lehrer of WNYC, it only takes three or four minutes to complete.

So far, Morris County appears to be making good progress. About 70 percent of residents had filled out their forms through May 12, said New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way.  That’s second only to Hunterdon County, and well above the national average of 58.6 percent.

“We’re trying to work on strategies, we’re trying to work on leadership to make sure everybody’s counted,” Gloria Blanco of the Morristown-based Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center told the town council in March.

In early 2019, President Trump proposed adding an immigration status question to the Census. Critics said it would scare immigrants from participating, resulting in an inaccurate count, and slanting the census to favor Republicans.

The question was blocked in the Supreme Court last June and scrapped in early July.

“It is extremely important that we get counted,” said Mayor Tim Dougherty, who presented Blanco with a proclamation declaring March as 2020 Census Awareness Month. “It’s an important matter because it’s all about federal dollars and representation in D.C.”

The official Census Day was April 1, and the Census Bureau had intended to check in with households that had not responded in May.

This has been pushed to later in the year, because of COVID-19. No date has been specified.

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