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Fill out your census form!

Teaneck shul’s MLK Day speaker asks residents to ‘Make NJ Count’

Patricia D. Williamson
Patricia D. Williamson

Patricia D. Williamson, the director of New Jersey Counts, a project from the nonprofit, nonpartisan, Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, is coming to Teaneck with an important message on January 20.

When you receive your census form, fill it out.

“A full and accurate census in 2020 is essential to ensuring that New Jersey receives the federal funding to which it is entitled,” Ms. Williamson said. After all, the United States Constitution mandates that the census, conducted every 10 years, must count every single person who lives in this country. The 2020 census form is due to be mailed out on March 12 and 13.

Ms. Williamson, charged with reaching out to what traditionally have been called “hard to count” communities, will speak at a Martin Luther King Day commemoration hosted by Teaneck’s Temple Emeth and sponsored by “a number of … temples, churches, organizations, and individuals,” according to event committee co-chair Barbara Giarmo. “We attract nearly 400 people each year.”

The other co-chair, Theodora Lacey, noted that “this event began immediately after the assassination of Dr. King as a candlelight vigil and has grown to a significant celebration of his life. Bringing to Bergen County outstanding speakers, embracing people of different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds has been most rewarding. While the event is free, collections received at the program have enabled us to provide scholarships for deserving high school students who, through service to their community, reflect the ideals that Dr. King worked to achieve.”

According to the Newark Institute’s website, the organization, founded in 1999 by Alan V. and Amy Lowenstein, was created “to empower urban residents to realize and achieve their full potential,” using such advocacy tools as research, public education, grassroots organizing, program development, legislative strategies, and litigation.

Ms. Williamson said that the federal government allocates more than $700 billion to state and local governments based on census data. New Jersey receives more than $17.5 billion of federal funding annually. “New Jersey also has one of the worst racial wealth gaps in the nation,” she said. “That gap will only increase if we don’t receive adequate funding.”

About a quarter of New Jersey’s population lives in “hard to count areas, designated as such because fewer than 73 percent of the residents returned their census forms in 2010,” she continued. “Black communities in New Jersey are very vulnerable to being hard to count, so the Institute is working hard to make sure these communities are aware of, and participate in, the census.”

Census data also determines how many representatives New Jersey sends to Congress, and it is used to draw state and federal legislative districts. There are now two fewer representatives in Congress for New Jersey than there were in 1990, based on 2000 and 2010 census data.

The Institute’s NJ Counts project that Ms. Williamson directs is implementing a statewide strategic plan to reach urban residents. The project is part of the Census 2020 NJ Coalition, run by Advocates for Children of NJ. “We are all working together closely in speaking to different groups,” Ms. Williamson said. “Each of us on the steering committee is focused on a specific demographic,” whether women, children, Asian Americans, or the African American community. She is well-prepared for this kind of effort; she’s done a large amount of civic engagement work as a volunteer before taking this position. “When my engineering job ended, I reinvented myself and went to work in the nonprofit area,” Ms. Williamson said.

Since residents of hard-to-count areas tend not to respond on their own, “we try to get them to respond by phone, internet, or mail,” Ms. Williamson said. Reasons for not responding vary with each demographic. “There’s a lot of fear and misunderstanding,” she said. “There’s a new term, disinformation, through which they hear deceitful, intentionally wrong things. It’s a growing problem.”

Even before this, “some people traditionally were wary of taking the census,” she said. “In the African American population, some think that since the census is run by the government, it may be connected to another side of the government, like the IRS. It’s similar for immigrants. They may think ‘ICE is coming.’ We try to tell them its safe and secure, and not connected in that way.”

Another reason this year’s census may present a problem is that it’s the first time it’s being done online, “and some are not internet savvy. When they receive the packet with a website address, they won’t know what to do. Or they may not be comfortable with it, or they don’t have broadband access.”

Still, she said, “they can overcome that barrier by using the phone, or filling it out at the library.” At the state level, she added, libraries have been told that the census is coming, and they should be ready to help.

“People have been traditionally undercounted in New Jersey,” Ms. Williamson said. “In 2010, 22 percent were not properly counted. They’re not getting all the people they should.” When people do not complete their form, the Census Bureau sends enumerators to individual homes, but “some don’t answer the door.”

Thus, while college students “tend to get over-counted, statistics show that low-income people and those without a high level of education tend not to be counted.” Interestingly, seniors traditionally have not been in the “hard to count” group. But now, with the internet becoming the primary option for filling out the census form, they have entered that category.

Ms. Williamson said the issues she will discuss tie in closely to the work of Dr. King. “Civil rights were important to Dr. King, and I believe he would be very interested in knowing that we are trying to fight voter suppression,” she said. Recently, her group supported a measure to restore the right to vote to parolees and people on probation, which Governor Phil Murphy signed into law before Christmas. “He would want to know that there are people who want to be part of society in this way and now they can be,” she said.

As for the census, she believes the late civil rights leader would “appreciate people knowing and understanding that their voice counts. No matter where they live, they matter.” And when people know that they matter, she said, “they act in a certain way — a much more positive way.

“Someone said you shouldn’t think of Martin Luther King Day as a day off, but rather as a day on. Where people might take the day and not go to work, they should go somewhere where there is community action or a commemorative conversation about the day.”

She said that she will urge everyone listening to her at Temple Emeth to fill out their census forms, and that if they want to help with outreach, to ensure that their communities have “Complete Count Committees.” (To join a local committee or to get help in organizing one, email the Institute at njcensus2020@njisj.org.)


Who: Temple Emeth

What: Will host a Martin Luther King Day commemoration featuring speaker Patricia Williamson

When: On January 20 at 6:30 p.m.

Where: At the synagogue, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck.

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