By Madeline Makoul
The Federal government has made the deadline for the end of the Census Wednesday, Sept. 30, heightening concern about obtaining an accurate count amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Before the pandemic, the 2020 Census was set to wrap up at the end of August. Due to a halt in outreach efforts with stay-at-home orders, however, the government pushed the deadline to Saturday, Oct. 31. However, at the end of July, the Federal government moved the date back once again, this time shifting it to Sept, 30, a cutoff that caught advocates by surprise.
“We were really glad about the extension to October 31st because there had been this long disruption, and no one could get out and do the work, so we needed the extra time,” State Representative Theresa Mah (D-2nd) said. “This announcement basically throws a wrench in our outreach plans, and a lot of organizations have to recalibrate to do the amount of work that they had intended to do, but in less time.”
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, “Nationally we have seen many changes, including the defunding of the post office and whether or not there should be a question about citizenship,” Moore said. “No one told us this change to the census was happening. The first time we saw it was in the papers.”
Nubia Willman, director of the City of Chicago’s Office of New Americans, said that this is a “power play” by the Trump administration, ensuring they get the numbers in December while he is still in office.
“This is just another power grab that’s going to cost all of our communities because it’s going to shorten our ability to make sure that we get counted accurately,” Willman said. “More than anything, it causes fear and confusion because they say first it’s July, then it’s October, and now it’s September. This is all a point to make sure that the historically undercounted are in fact not counted.”
Additionally, for those who have still not responded, official census bureau workers will attempt to visit non-responders to get them to fill out the census, Mah explained. But with a shortened timeframe, these workers will also be unable to reach as many people.
“It is really an abdication of responsibility, frankly, because you are just not putting anyone in the best position to make sure that we have an accurate count,” Willman said.
While these census workers can help gather some of the final non-responders’ information so the census count is more accurate, during a pandemic, this may be something residents want to avoid, Willman explained.
“We are going to continue to make sure as many people are counted as possible, and as numerators are coming and knocking on doors, that may make people uneasy because they don’t necessarily want people dropping by,” Willman said. “The best way to avoid someone knocking on your door is to fill out the census now.”
According to the website 2020census.gov, Illinois’s self-response rate is currently at 69%. However, Cook County’s self-response rate is lower at 64.5%.
Moore said these response rates are not typical of what the county response rate would have been.
“Due to things like COVID, protests, and looting, they have taken center stage and attention away from the importance of the census,” Moore explained. “The City of Chicago has been struggling with all of these other challenges, and frankly that has caused this low response rate.”
With the outreach efforts cut short, Mah said she is working to ensure events and outreach continue in the remaining weeks to guarantee the Census accounts for hard-to-count communities. Mah said local officials and Census workers are continuing to give out Census information at events and coordinate with other organizations to include Census information wherever they can.
“We are able to do more phone calls and flyering, and we have volunteers and organizations that are working at events where we anticipate large numbers of people, like food distributions,” Mah said. “Organizations have to adapt to do more in less time.”
Targeting vulnerable communities
Moore added that grassroots organizations are targeting eight of the lowest counted communities and continue to distribute Census materials at food pantries and health clinics and with mask giveaways.
As outreach efforts continue, both Moore and Mah said an undercount’s effects would be significant. Mah emphasized how local governments use Federal funds allotted based on Census figures to pay for everything from education to hospitals and healthcare to roads and bridges. With each person who does not respond, less money gets allocated to these entities.
Based on estimates, Moore said each person in Cook County accounts for $1,400 in Federal dollars yearly that would come to the State, resulting in a significant loss in dollars if not everyone responds to the Census.
“How do states, cities, and counties make up for their shortfall?” Moore asked. “They tax their citizens. If we paid more attention to the front end and brought home the dollars by counting our population, we wouldn’t have to tax people on the back end to make up for the dollars we don’t get.”
The Census does not just determine the number of Federal dollars that come to the State, County, and City; it determines representation in Washington, too. Depending on how many people respond to the Census, Moore said Illinois is are at risk of losing two representatives in Congress.
“I need everybody to get on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and put #CookCountyCensus and #MakeIllinoisCount,” Moore said. “I need them to spread the word and ask their people, ‘have you filled out your Census?’ We need people to participate.”
To learn more about Illinois’s Census efforts, visit www.illinoisCensus2020.com. Mah’s website is www.reptheresamah.com. For more on Moore, visit www.commissionermoore.com. For the City’s Census effort, log on to Census2020.chicago.gov or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For the local U.S. Census Office, call (847) 600-9000.