By Madeline Makoul
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic rages on, advocates for an accurate count in the Federal Census continue outreach, urging residents in hard-to-count communities to fill out the 2020 Census to ensure the results accurately reflect the city’s fabric.
Due to the pandemic, the 2020 Census has extended the timeframe for residents to provide information, allowing people to continue reporting via phone, mail, or an online form until Saturday, Oct. 31. The Census, which the U.S. conducts every ten years, determines states’ representation in Congress as well as the amount of Federal funds communities receive, said Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
“In Cook County, $1,400 a year comes into the county on the basis of each person counted, so that’s $14,000 over a decade,” Preckwinkle explained. “That money comes to support education, infrastructure, roads and bridges, and public health, so it’s really important that people participate.”
Cook County has 5.15 million residents, so that means $72.1 million per year.
State Representative Theresa Mah (D-2nd), who also serves on the State of Illinois’s Complete Count Commission, noted that, due to fewer funds on the Federal level for Census advocacy, the Illinois General Assembly dedicated $29 million in general revenue funds towards Census outreach and set up a Census office and advisory council to ensure “hard-to-reach” communities—people at low income levels, communities of color, people in rural areas, seniors, families, and non-English speakers—get counted in the 2020 Census.
“It’s not just about monetary resources, it’s the number of people we have representing us in Congress” Mah said. “Having that political power is important.”
Continuing outreach during COVID-19
While the State rallied to increase funding for 2020 Census outreach, the pandemic required a quick transition to safer methods.
Nubia Willman, director of the City of Chicago’s Office of New Americans, said coronavirus halted efforts such as billboards and kiosks, prompting officials to transition to social media, community organization outreach, and influencer impact to inform residents and urge them to participate.
“COVID really cut us off at the knees,” Willman explained. “The issue is now making sure that, if people are home, they have the capacity to get online or call on the phone to do the Census or figure out ways to bring the Census to them in really limited situations.”
Stanley Moore, Cook County Board commissioner for the 4th District, chair of the Cook County Complete Count Census Commission, and member of the State of Illinois Complete Count Commission, said leaders provided funds to 84 non-profits and local governments across the city to support outreach. These trusted community organizations go beyond basic ads and commercials by using creative, COVID-aware methods.
“We have shifted to start distributing Census materials through food pantries, through health clinics, and through face mask giveaways,” Moore explained. “We also have community groups and churches…renting vans and driving through the communities where the hardest to count people live, educating people on why it’s still important that they participate.”
With the deadline pushed back to Oct. 31, efforts continue across the county through phone banking and tools such as Zoom to host town halls.
More work remains, however, as the University of Illinois at Chicago’s “Map the Count” tracker puts Illinois’s median response rate at 67.6% as of this writing.
“At the end of the day, it’s very quick and easy, but it’s still a task that people may not prioritize because we all have so much more going on,” Willman said. “We have an opportunity for the Census to impact us in a positive way if people just take the five minutes to fill it out.”
Barriers to response; distrust of Federal government
Complications with COVID aside, some historically undercounted populations across the State of Illinois may not respond to the Census, thus lessening Federal funding and congressional representation for years to come.
Mah explained reaching some people can be difficult if they work multiple jobs, live in areas with limited internet access, have language barriers, are seniors, or take care of their family and simply do not have the focus or energy to pay attention to the Census. Mah said spreading more information about what the Census provides will combat such challenges.
“There’s information that’s not necessarily conveyed to everyone, like if you educate your kids in public schools, schools get money from the Federal government,” Mah said. “Same with some senior services, roads, bridges, and so on. People don’t necessarily pay attention to what it’s for, so they might ignore it.”
Busy lifestyles and language hurdles aside, lower response rates also stem from mounting distrust in how the government uses Census information. In addition to some residents’ general distrust in government, which stops them from filling out the Census, immigrant populations faced a different concern when President Donald Trump pushed for a question regarding citizenship to appear on the 2020 Census. The courts prevented that move, and the Census contains no such question.
“I think President Trump has made a deliberate effort to discourage people in immigrant communities from participating in the Census with the effort to include a citizenship question, which was disallowed by the courts,” Preckwinkle said. “Although the president was unsuccessful in getting this question in the Census survey, it had the effect of dampening immigrant participation, which I think is what he wanted.”
Mah emphasized that, by law, the information gathered in the Census is confidential, and the government does not share it with other agencies or use it for any other purpose. To combat this fear, outreach continues in hard-to-reach communities, educating residents about how the government uses the Census and relying on trusted messengers to disperse information in their communities.
Respond for change
After months of COVID-related struggles and social unrest, people are eager for change, and Census advocates are adamant that the Census is a simple step forward.
“If people want change and want to be active in the community, it goes beyond marching,” Mah said. “It includes working on policy, having elected officials that reflect your values, and filling out the Census so that we have resources we need to make decisions about how to strengthen our communities.”
With the Census determining ten years of Federal funding, if residents are undercounted, the State will receive less money to allocate to communities—funds that could support everything from schools and social service programs to infrastructures and buses, Mah explained.
For impoverished ones communities or those historically receiving fewer resources, the Census represents a positive step toward change because it increases investment in these areas, Willman said. Through Census-related public service announcements such as “Make Yourself Count,” Willman said Census advocates are acknowledging these gaps and urging people to participate to create the change the city needs.
“We understand that there were historically undercounted groups who, even when we say this is for resources, could look around and say, ‘I never get resources, so why do I fill this out?’” Willman said. “We can argue, push, fight, and advocate for resources as much as we can, but we can’t even have that argument if we don’t have the resources in the first place, so the Census is really the first step to make sure that we are getting a piece of that pie.”
Beyond funding, Willman noted Census participation is a chance for residents to show they are here and make a mark on the city they love, counting themselves in their community in an effort to see those communities flourish with adequate funding.
“Ultimately, it’s important because a lot of people who are Chicagoans take a lot of pride in being Chicagoans, and this is a great way for you to leave a marker and say, ‘This is my city, this is who I am, I am part of the fabric of Chicago,’” Willman said. “For the people who aren’t going to fill it out, it’s really a loss for generations to come to not know who was here and who laid the foundation for them going forward.”
To learn more about Illinois’s Census efforts, visit www.illinoisCensus2020.com. Find contact information for Toni Preckwinkle at www.cookcountyil.gov/person/toni-preckwinkle. Theresa Mah’s website is www.reptheresamah.com. For more on Stanley Moore, visit www.commissionermoore.com. For Willman and the Office of New Americans, go to https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/mayor/provdrs/office_of_new_americans.html. For the City’s Census effort, log on to Census2020.chicago.gov.