The stakes are high for all to participate in the 2020 U.S. Census, since crucial decisions about government-funded programs and representation are made based on updated census data.

James King, interim director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, emphasized that in addition to ensuring proper funding amounts for services, census information also determines the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives and is used to redraw congressional and state legislative districts. After the 2010 census, he pointed out, New Jersey lost a seat in the House of Representatives. 

The loss of representation and the loss of funding negatively affects citizens, especially those from underserved and vulnerable populations, stressed Brenda Rascher, diocesan executive director of Catholic Social Services.

“We need people to understand that the state has lost funding in the past because of the census. So if we don’t get it right, it will be 10 years before we can fix it,” she said.

The 2020 Census unfolds in most states from March through July.

Everyone Counts

In a 2019 statement, Bishop Frank Dewane of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, stressed that all people count and must be included in the census.

“Census data helps direct more than $800 billion annually to key programs designed to advance the common good, strengthen families and reduce poverty,” he said. “The Catholic Church and other service providers rely on the national census to provide an accurate count in order to effectively serve those in need.”

Who We Serve

Marlene Laó-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton, expressed similar thoughts.

“We serve some of the most at-risk and vulnerable populations in the four counties of the Diocese – young children, immigrants, and people struggling with chronic mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, human trafficking, homelessness, and hunger. Many of these groups are populations that the U.S. Census Bureau considers ‘hard-to-count,’ because they have been historically under-counted.

“We at Catholic Charities count on federal, state and local funding to provide the high level of services we offer to the community within the Diocese of Trenton,” Laó-Collins said. “If everyone living in New Jersey is not properly counted, New Jersey stands to lose significant funding, which will most certainly affect Catholic Charities and what we are able to do.”

Trusted Voices Overcome Fear

King noted the value of census education, saying, “Such efforts go a long way in easing the fears of those who believe the census will affect them negatively, and can be effective when done by people and entities they respect and trust.” Roberto Hernandez, director of Catholic Charities El Centro, Trenton, which serves the Latino community in Mercer County, agrees. He acknowledged that many they serve live in a culture of fear. “It is our goal to put them at ease, to educate them about the census and provide opportunities for participation.

“They love the Church and trust both the Diocese of Trenton and El Centro,” which makes education and outreach more fruitful, Hernandez said, noting that El Centro will serve as a public-access site for those who need education or computer access to participate in the census.

Laó-Collins said it is “important for people to be aware that all census responses are confidential and, by law, not shared with any federal or local law enforcement agencies. In fact, representatives of the U.S. Census Bureau take an oath of confidentiality, and any breach carries serious consequences.”

“The census asks questions like the number of people living in your home, gender, age, ethnicity, etc.,” she noted. “There are no questions on citizenship or immigration status, and the census does not ask for sensitive information like your Social Security number.”

What to Look For

Dana DiFilippo, Catholic Charities’ communications and social media manager, explained that the U.S. Census Bureau plans to have census forms online by March 12.

From that date on, CCDOT will have its three public-access sites open: El Centro, Trenton; Community Services of Burlington County, and Community Services of Ocean County, she said. All three sites will also host a “Census Day” party April 1. The day will include pizza, patriotic activities and giveaways, with the goal of encouraging census participation.

“Billboards and bus ads in Ocean and Burlington Counties will invite people to complete the census at our public-access sites,” DiFilippo said. Catholic Charities is one of 11 groups in Trenton committed to hosting census reporting sites to improve reporting in Trenton, where the census return rate in 2010 was less than 60 percent.

Community Services will also undertake a mobile effort, taking laptops on the road to give access to those who might not otherwise participate. While the locations are not yet set, the effort is likely to take place in libraries, parish locations or Latino community centers, DiFilippo said.

Anyone interested in hosting the mobile effort may contact Community Services director Arnold Valentin at 609-599-1246 or avalentin@cctrenton.org.

For in-depth census information, visit 2020Census.gov, or New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, njisj.org/census2020.