ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Oct. 31 is still months away, but it’s fast approaching for the Census Bureau, and it’s the last day for residents to be counted in the 2020 census. The once-a-decade system for measuring the population has been thrown off a little bit this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Essex County towns have still found ways to encourage residents to respond to the survey, even while in quarantine.
As of May 31, the national response rate was 60.5 percent, the exact number the Census Bureau predicted it would be. In an email to the newspaper on May 28, the bureau said those who do not respond will be enumerated as part of the Nonresponse Follow Up operation. While New Jersey’s response rate is higher than the national average at 62.5 percent, Essex County’s is lower, at 54.8 percent.
Glen Ridge has the highest response rate in the county at 81.4 percent, while Irvington has the lowest response rate at 40 percent. Neither Glen Ridge Mayor Stuart Patrick nor Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss returned a request for comment by press time on June 2. Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren also did not respond to a request for comment about his city’s 44.9 percent response rate by press time on June 2.
Bloomfield’s response rate as of May 31 is 65.6 percent, and Mayor Michael Venezia said in a phone interview on June 1 that town officials have been encouraging residents to fill out the census survey as often as they can over the last several months.
“We’ve been pushing it out through social media, and we’ve been utilizing our library staff,” he said. “They’ve gotten creative with making memes to encourage people.”
This was the first year that the census was available to fill out online, and in the email on May 28, the Census Bureau said there was an uptick in the number of responses nationally. They expect to beat the goal of 60.5 percent.
Aside from counting the people who live in the country to determine the population growth over the last 10 years, the census determines how many congressional seats each state gets and could potentially redraw congressional district boundaries. It also determines how money flows from the federal government into state, county and municipal governments. That’s why Venezia wants as many people in Bloomfield to respond as possible.
“If we’re anywhere in the nineties I’ll be happy,” he said about his response-rate goal. “I think that will be a home run for us, to help us out with funding.”
Bloomfield’s response rate in the 2010 census was 71.1 percent, which Venezia said put the town under the threshold for funding for towns of 50,000 people. But Bloomfield’s estimated population in 2018 would place it over that threshold, changing the amount of money received from the state and federal government.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has kept everyone at home for the last two and a half months, census committees have not been able to go door-to-door to encourage residents to respond to the census. Still, Venezia is hopeful that it will be possible by later in the summer.
“We’re going to put up banners in town and flyers in small businesses as they can open again,” he said. “Hopefully we can go door to door soon and really get everyone counted.”
In East Orange, the response rate is 45 percent. Public Information Officer Connie Jackson said in an email on June 1 that the city wants to reach 100 percent and has been working with the Census Bureau and East Orange’s Complete Count Committee to reach residents.
“We have partnered with local coronavirus relief and outreach efforts by ensuring that census posters/handouts are in food distribution bags,” Jackson said. “In the interest of increasing communication while adding a personal touch, we will be organizing a phone bank. This will be a volunteer-based effort. We have partnered with our faith-based organizations to promote the census and announce the census during church services, Bible studies, etc. The city is also hosting a virtual citywide Day of Prayer, which will have a portion dedicated to the importance of the census.”
In addition to robo calls through the East Orange School District, East Orange officials are designing new banners and lawn signs with the deadline to fill out the census survey and are beginning a social media campaign to boost the response rate.
“In our weekly COVID-19 Virtual Town Hall meetings every Thursday at 6 p.m., Mayor Ted Green, along with the Department of Health and Human Services and various guests, provides COVID-19 updates and resources,” Jackson said. “Mayor Green always mentions the census during these meetings, as well as during his weekly mayor ‘Stay in the House’ dance parties, where he DJs, on Facebook Live every Friday.”
South Orange’s response rate is 73.2 percent, just a smidge ahead of close neighbor Maplewood. Village President Sheena Collum said South Orange’s efforts in encouraging people to fill out the census largely moved online because of COVID-19, like every other town in the county.
“A lot has been through the use of social media,” she said in a phone interview on June 1. “We’ve been working with Seton Hall students as well, and making sure those who live off campus are responding and being counted.”
South Orange and Maplewood, whose response rate is 72.2 percent, have been challenging each other to see which town can end the census year with the higher rate. Other than the important changes that can affect daily life for residents of South Orange as a result of the census, Collum said competing has been fun.
“Overall I’m very proud of South Orange,” she said. “We’ve had a friendly competition with Maplewood, and I think we’ve maintained about 1 percentage point ahead of them. So those friendly competitions keep us going.”
Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee is happy with 72.2 percent, but he wants to surpass the town’s 2010 response rate, which was 78.2.
“Every person makes or breaks funding that you get,” McGehee said in a phone interview on June 1. “The more people you count, the more it helps. It’s not just the financial help from D.C. and Trenton, but our representatives in D.C. and how they’re fighting for our interests.”
West Orange’s response rate is 67.4 percent, of which Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown is proud. But she’s not satisfied yet. In 2010, West Orange’s responses totaled 73 percent, a number Matute-Brown wants at least to match this year.
“We’ve been constantly sending out reminders via social media and email,” she said in a phone interview on June 1. “And challenging everyone to call a friend to pass it on to others. This is part of the recovery process from COVID-19, too, to make sure we’re fully funded.”
Matute-Brown also mentioned the congressional district boundaries implications, pointing out that New Jersey has lost districts in the past because of the census.
As restaurants in West Orange open again for curbside pickup, Matute-Brown said she and other town officials are working on handing out flyers, and are asking businesses to encourage customers to fill out the census.
The original deadline to respond to the census online was April 1, and in mid-April the bureau mailed questionnaires to homes that had not responded online. Between Aug. 11 and Oct. 31, census takers will interview residents in households that haven’t responded, to make sure everyone is counted. For more information on the 2020 census and ways to complete it, whether online, by phone or by mail, visit www.2020census.gov. To complete the questionnaire by phone, call 844-330-2020; to complete the questionnaire in a language other than English, visit the census website to find the correct phone number.