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Cape May County has long had a problem with the decennial census. In 2010, the county had the worst response rate in the state. In 2020, the numbers are just as bad.

Why bother to push the issue of census response in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed 81 county lives and drastically disrupted our seasonal economy? The answer is simple: it’s important and we don’t get another chance to do it right for another 10 years.

Even in the face of the pandemic, areas of the state much harder hit than Cape May County have responded with census self-reporting at rates way better than ours.

As of July 28, the national response rate is 62.7%, New Jersey's rate is 64.6% and the Cape May County rate is 29.8%, less than half of the average state response rate. Every other county in the state is above 50%, with six counties above 70%.

What is clear is that this county does not take responding to the census seriously. In 2010, less than one in three households responded by the time the census was closed down.

This matters. The decennial census drives everything from congressional representation to the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds. Census numbers drive business decisions, redistricting maps, grant eligibility, and more.

Over 100 programs that receive federal support have that support based on census data. The need does not disappear, just the funds to address it, funds that may have to be replaced with local tax dollars.

Understand that with a very low response rate, the odds are high that the census will result in an undercount. An undercount means fewer dollars for everything from block grants to Medicaid.

State officials have long maintained that New Jersey was the victim of an undercount in 2010. To ensure that did not happen in 2020, the state set up a Complete Count Commission.

Before the pandemic was a focus of attention, the state offered funds for counties and non-profit organizations to establish local efforts aimed at educating the public, encouraging participation, and promoting response; $3.2 million was allocated to the effort.

Four counties elected not to apply for the funds. Cape May County was one of the four. All counties that submitted applications for funding received it.

On May 14, well into the pandemic and the economic lockdown, the county issued a press release saying that they had received “new guidance” from the federal government that second homeowners should register their vacation homes as part of the census, even if they had already registered their primary residence.

There was really nothing new here. This has long been the guidance from the U.S. Census Bureau. Doing so properly is not going to lead to a double count.

The U.S. Census Bureau has always wanted to know about second homes, just as it has always wanted to know your primary residence.

This guidance is there for more than second homeowners. It covers all categories of individuals who may split their time between residences, including college students, jail inmates, and those deployed in the military.

How could officials who plan the county’s efforts concerning the once in 10-year census now see this as new information?

To add to the mix, the Senate did not approve an extension of time for the pandemic-impacted census effort. There is a push to have the redistricting data available before the end of the year.

Regardless of the position one takes on a decision to speed up the census, the reality is we have less time to get it right in Cape May County.

The launch of the non-responsive follow-up is beginning. Census workers will be going door to door to check on non-responsive households.

There are two things we need to do in the face of our dismal response rate. We need to significantly improve on the 32% total response rate, in 2010, by making every effort now to respond while we still can.

The county and state officials, along with our chambers of commerce, need to be working with municipalities to improve our abysmal response.

We also need to let county officials know that we expect a much more explicit plan for the county’s participation in 2030.

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