A momentous event –one that happens only once every decade — is coming early next year.

I am referring to the 2020 census. You know that the U.S. Constitution mandates the count. What you may not realize is how much is riding on the census: Census counts determine how federal funding and political representation are allocated.

Federal funds for many programs are distributed to states according to the census counts. In New Jersey, nearly $23 billion in federal funding depends on census counts, including Medicaid, Title I school funding, school lunch and breakfast programs, child care, student loans, highway and transportation funding.

Political representation is also at stake. At one time, New Jersey had 15 congressional representatives. In three of the last four census counts — the 1980, 1990 and 2010 counts — New Jersey lost congressional seats, bringing the total down to 12.

The New Jersey Complete Count Commission, a bipartisan group, issued a report to the governor and the Legislature in June 2019, and noted the importance of the census: “If New Jerseyans are not fully and fairly counted, our ability to be properly represented in Congress and adequately funded when it comes to vital federal programs will be severely and irretrievably diminished.”

So it is critical that every person in the state be counted.

However, there are also obstacles to getting an accurate count: About 22% of New Jerseyans live in “hard-to-count” areas, which traditionally have a low percentage of residents who complete and return their census questionnaire.

Statewide efforts are underway to raise awareness of the census and its importance. The Complete Count Commission has been formed to encourage full participation in the 2020 federal census. About $9 million has been allocated in the state’s budget for census outreach and education, and grants are available to both nonprofits and county governments. The Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) is running the Census 2020 NJ Coalition, a statewide outreach and awareness campaign to coordinate nonprofit and community-based efforts to ensure an accurate 2020 census count.

Schools have an important role to play in the process. Teachers, administrators and school leaders are trusted voices within their communities and they can help educate parents and guardians on the need for everyone to be counted, while also teaching children about the census. The federal Census Bureau has made resources available to educators, including pre-K-12 materials and activities for teachers to engage students.

This issue of School Leader features an article on the 2020 Census, including what communities and schools can do to help ensure a full count and the resources available to them. The article can be found here. I urge board members to read it, and help spread the word about the importance of the 2020 Census.