Posted on October 28, 2019
Safe streets. A hot meal every day. An affordable place to live. Heart medicine.
Vulnerable older adults across New Jersey would be forced to live without any or all of the above if not for the federal dollars paying for the programs that help keep them healthy and secure.
That’s why advocating for older adults also means advocating for adequate spending on everything from sidewalk repairs to health insurance benefits to nutritious lunches at the town senior center.
And that’s why a crucial element of making New Jersey communities age-friendly will be ensuring no residents are missed in the U.S Census Bureau’s 2020 Decennial Count.
“An accurate count is important for everyone,” said Kiki Jamieson, of The Fund for New Jersey, a philanthropic organization working to boost participation in New Jersey’s count. “We all benefit from public investments that are determined by census numbers.”
Federal programs that play a crucial role in the lives of many older adults – such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and services provided under the Older Americans Act – rely on Census data to measure the extent of need within a geographic region.
Beyond those more well-known benefits, many aspects of the daily lives of people of all ages could be affected by an undercount of residents. The number of low-income people in a region is used to calculate the budgets for programs to help pay for food, housing and health costs. The number of daily commuters dictates federal spending on highway and transit networks. Median housing costs are metrics used to allocate rent subsidies and public housing dollars.
“The entire community – whatever age you are – benefits from an accurate count,” Jamieson said.
The Census, which officially kicks off on April 1, 2020, tabulates the number of people living in a household and surveys occupants about key demographic information, such as age, race, income, employment status, etc. The most accurate and reliable responses usually come from those who voluntarily complete the forms themselves, the Census Bureau says.
Next year will mark the first decennial census year when most census forms will be on-line. The first mailing sent to households in March will contain an identifier code to use with on-line submissions. The form also will contain a telephone number for those without Internet access or those who prefer to give verbal answers to a Census worker.
Three follow-up mailings will be sent to households that don’t respond, with the fourth containing a paper form that can be mailed for those who wish to respond that way.
Beginning in May, census workers will go door-to-door to try to count people who do not respond.
Advocates hope that most householders will find the new on-line forms easier, but some people – such as older adults, low-income residents and those without Internet access – might need assistance and re-assurances that the method is safe and confidential.
“Older adults often worry about scams so we need to make sure they are aware that while you can call the Census Bureau to respond, the bureau will never call you,” Jamieson said. “The Census Bureau also will never ask for private data such as Social Security numbers or bank account numbers, so if anyone is requesting that information, then it is a scam.”
Another concern is that some people won’t respond because of a growing distrust of government.
“I would say that, over time, the levels of trust in government have been falling and that has only continued over the past decade, so that is an additional challenge we will face this year,” Jamieson said.
What’s at Stake in New Jersey
New Jersey receives more than $22.7 billion dollars a year from federal programs that use census data. An undercount means lost funds and less representation.
The state lost a Congressional seat after the 2010 Census. State legislative seats and state funding are also at stake, another incentive for individual communities to make sure their residents are counted.
Because of its diverse population, New Jersey is at risk of a significant undercount. Groups missed most often are immigrants, non-native English speakers, people of color, urban residents, the homeless, children under 5, and people living in apartments.
Urban areas are generally the hardest to count, and in the 2010 census, mailed survey response rates for New Jersey’s cities were very low: 55 percent in Newark, 59 percent in Trenton, 60 percent in Paterson, and 61 percent in Camden. About 22% of New Jersey residents, or almost 1.9 million people live in a hard-to-count area. View this map of hard-to-count areas
Recognizing the potential harm of an undercount, the state in June allocated more than $9 million to improve response rates through education and outreach efforts.
“It’s the first time the state has allocated money to improve Census response rates,” Jamieson said.
“There’s greater recognition that New Jersey sends much more money to the federal government than it receives back, and an undercount will only increase that disparity,” Jamieson said.
Many local areas are creating “Complete Count Committees” or designating a “census hub” where residents can complete forms on-line or by phone. Advocates are urging community-based and nonprofit organizations to join the Census 2020 NJ Coalition, a group of racial, ethnic, immigrant, religious, health, education, labor, housing, social services, and business groups working in partnership with state and local government officials.
Older adults can play a role in a variety of ways, from volunteering, applying for a temporary census job, encouraging their local governments and civic organizations to join the coalition and encouraging their own children and grandchildren to participate in the count.
“Every group across New Jersey needs to see the importance of having a complete count in New Jersey,” Jamieson said.