“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
These words—first uttered by Martin Luther King, Jr.—were placed at the top of the agenda for the NAACP Chicago Westside Branch’s 2020 census meeting. On a cold Monday night in late February, five weeks before National Census Day, around 20 outreach workers gathered in the Austin neighborhood on the far West Side of Chicago to discuss their outreach strategy for the then-upcoming national census.
The group is one of many across the city working to ensure a fair and accurate population count in the current 2020 census, a process that has since become more complicated as precautions have been implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governments throughout Illinois are funneling millions of dollars into “Get Out the Count” initiatives to encourage community members to participate in the census and prevent another census undercount like that in Chicago during the 2010 census.
Federal funding and democratic representation are on the line in this decennial population count. As the first round of census response forms and postcards urging people to fill out the census remotely are being sent to homes across the country, groups around Chicago are hoping their work will make a positive difference in the count.
Learning From the Mistakes of the Past
At 66 percent, the city of Chicago’s self-response rate was among the lowest in the entire country during the 2010 census; comparatively the statewide self-response rate was 76 percent, according to the United States Census Bureau.
Concerns about the 2010 census in Chicago surfaced even while it was still ongoing; then–U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said in a press release in March of that year that the Bureau was “concerned about the relatively low response from Chicago. Every household that fails to send back their census form by mail must be visited by a census taker starting in May—at a significant taxpayer cost.”
Low self-response rates lead to an undercount of the city’s population and census enumerators are then tasked with conducting an in-person survey to households that have not self-reported. The U.S. Census Bureau reported an undercount estimate of 59,800 Illinoisans in 2010.
To prevent another undercount, the city is emphasizing community outreach with what are known as hard-to-count (HTC) populations. Nubia Willman, Director of the Office of New Americans in the Chicago Mayor’s office, explained this strategy in an interview with *The Maroon*.
“From the beginning, the focus has been on the hard-to-count populations…. There was a focus and an intent to make sure that those groups are engaged with, in ways that perhaps they haven’t been in the past,” Willman said.
HTC populations are defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as populations “for whom a real or perceived barrier exists to full and representative inclusion in the data collection process.”
Examples of HTC populations in the city of Chicago include people living in low-income neighborhoods, people experiencing homelessness, people in immigrant communities, and children under the age of five, Willman said.
According to the Census 2020 HTC Map created by researchers at the CUNY Mapping Service at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Hyde Park is not considered an HTC area, but most of the surrounding neighborhoods are. Census tracts throughout Washington Park, Woodlawn, South Shore, and Kenwood have all been identified as HTC. In Illinois’s first congressional district, which includes the University of Chicago’s campus, 31 percent of the population live in HTC areas.
These populations have a low self-response rate, meaning that less people self-report the members of the household through the paper census form. Under normal circumstances, this would oblige the Census Bureau to spend more money sending census enumerators directly to households across the city for the count. However, in response to social-distancing protocols encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Census Bureau announced that it will be suspending the use of in-person enumerators except for remote parts of northern Maine and southeast Alaska where the surveys will be conducted from a distance of six feet to avoid the potential for infection.
This year, Willman explained, there are new ways to respond to the census that will be even more crucial for an accurate count in light of the COVID-19 pandemic: Residents will have the option to fill the census out online, via a phone call, or via the traditional paper form.
The U.S. Census Bureau touts the online option as safe, environmentally friendly, and more economical than the traditional paper response forms, as it will allow the data to be more efficiently uploaded to the Bureau’s digital databases. However, while Willman acknowledges the benefits of the online response, she is wary about it being an equitable option for all Chicagoans.
“We are aware that is the preference. We are also aware there is a digital divide in the city,” Willman said.
Willman went on to explain that the city had planned to ensure computers were available in public libraries throughout the city so that residents could have a secure, reliable internet connection to fill out the census; however, that option is no longer available since public libraries have closed following Governor J. B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.
When it comes to online response, Anita Benerji of Forefront, an Illinois-based organization that helps connect grant-makers with nonprofits and that has been hired by the Illinois Count Me In 2020 initiative, says there is still a trust issue when it comes to online responses.
“The biggest hurdle that folks are experiencing right now is that there are communities that are afraid of sharing personal household data online,” Benerji said. “It’s just a reality.”
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. Census Bureau has announced an extension to the self-response deadline that will allow households to respond by any method until August 14. Paper questionnaires were sent out on April 8 and the Bureau announced plans to adjust their call center operations that have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. In response to residents experiencing longer wait-times to fill out the form via phone call, the Bureau is reinstating a callback option. People can leave a message with the Bureau and wait to be called back by a call center agent in order to complete the form.
According to Willman, the possibility of a question concerning citizenship was frightening to immigrant communities across Chicago. Now, the city’s Office of New Americans is working with local community groups to mitigate the fears sparked by the proposed citizenship question.
“There is still overwhelming concern,” Willman said. “The people on the ground, who are trusted, are the ones who have been tasked to say, ‘No, it’s not a question’…. We’re doing our best to mitigate that damage.”
Community Outreach as a Solution
In order to create more faith in the online response option and to dispel misinformation about the 2020 census, the state, county, and city governments have created outreach grant programs to provide local organizations with money to educate residents about and promote self-response in the 2020 census.
Benerji and Willman explained that the grant programs aim to work with trusted community voices to implement educational programming around the census.
“It is imperative that when you’re thinking about reaching out to various HTC populations that your trusted leaders are very much the ones that are sharing those messages,” Benerji said.
As a facilitator of the state grantee programs, Forefront, according to Benerji, will have grantees, “connecting on a monthly basis to share challenges, best practices, and to make sure that they are armed with the resources that are necessary to do this work.”
The NAACP Chicago Westside Branch was one of the recipients of the Illinois Count Me In 2020 Get Out the Count (GOTC) grants that were announced in April of 2019.
As a GOTC grantee, the Westside NAACP under the direction of their census coordinator Phyllis Logan is responsible for census education and engagement with members of their communities.
Willman explained that the various outreach groups are expected to incorporate census outreach into the work they already do. For example, if a community organization has a monthly meeting, they are encouraged to pass out flyers with important dates about the upcoming census. After receiving the grant, the Westside NAACP had outreach workers attend community events to directly talk with people about the count.
Though the intention was to perform outreach work in-person, in response to social-distancing protocols, organizations will be readjusting their outreach efforts. The Illinois Count Me In 2020 website explains that these organizations will have to “consider digital communications strategies, phone banking, or other outreach during the virus pandemic.”
For Westside NAACP president Karl Brinson, the census outreach is consistent with their overall mission to bring more power to Chicago’s Black population.
“The work that we’re doing is the empowerment of our community and black people in general, so this is an extension of what our work is about. It just helps level the playing field,” Brinson said. “We are people on the ground, we’re the boots on the ground who are trying to…get our folks engaged in this process and make sure people count us. We want equity.”
Kevin Spears, a West Side resident and census outreach worker, said he joined in the efforts to prevent another undercount and to ensure that communities across the city receive proper funding.
“We gotta think about the people who aren’t as blessed, so it’s really about making sure we get the funding to more of the poverty stricken communities,” Spears said. “I don’t want the same thing to happen because so many people were not counted…. Losing that [funding] is a big deal to me.”
Spears and Alex Lyons, another outreach worker, said that in their experiences, people in the Austin neighborhood and other West Side communities are often distrustful of the government, are uninformed about the census, or do not believe funding resulting from the census will reach their community.
“People, these here in the hard-to-count areas, their mind is on day-to-day living, getting to work, taking the kid to school, helping the kid get something to eat,” Lyons said. “They are not thinking about the damn form.”
Lyons also said he is pleased to see city, county, and state governmental bodies providing outreach funding to local organizations, as he believes it to be the most effective strategy in spreading census information.
“The best thing they can do is give us the supplies and funds that we need to do that leg work because we know where people are, we know where events are, they don’t,” Lyons said. “We can go in some areas that the city and government people just cannot go.”
"There is way too much to lose if we don’t take this seriously.”
One of the largest concerns of an undercount is a loss of federal funding. According to Willman, every resident who is not counted could mean a loss of federal dollars allocated toward programs and services that impact everyday life in Chicago.
“There is way too much to lose if we don’t take this seriously,” Willman said. “It impacts us daily in the trains we take, the schools we go to, [and] the libraries we visit.”
A report published by the Chicago Urban League in May of last year found that in fiscal year 2016, “under the 55 largest federal programs, *nearly $35 billion* was disbursed to the state of Illinois based on 2010 census data.” The billions of dollars tied to census data in Illinois are used for programs such as Medicaid, student loan programs, SNAP benefits, and highway construction.
Willman also stressed that college students need to be counted in the city where they go to school. For students who live in university housing at any institution, the school acts as a group reporter and will count students in a group count. Willman stresses that college students who live off campus should fill out the census in the city in which they go to school.
“We want you included here,” Willman said, explaining that since college students use programs and services provided by the city, for example public transportation, they should be counted in the city in which they live and attend school.
The U.S. Census Bureau has further emphasized the need for college students to be counted where they attend school in an online announcement. Colleges will continue to count students registered in university housing. Even though students may currently be living somewhere else due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bureau still wants them counted in their place of residence during the school year.
“Even if they are home on census day, April 1, they should be counted according to the residence criteria which states they should be counted where they live and sleep most of the time,” the Bureau said in a press release.
Benerji further explained that insufficient state funding in Illinois makes federal funding all the more imperative.
“In a state that is perennially broke,” Benerji said, “we need to rely on our federal dollars for those various social service programs that residents all across the state rely on.”
Willman went on to explain that Illinois is at risk of losing one, or even two, federal congressional representatives due to a drop in population—a risk Willman believes will be increased if there is an undercount of the population.
“It lessens the voice we have on the table when it comes to federal issues,” Willman said. “We want to have as accurate of a count as possible to make sure we don’t lose any more political voice on the federal level.”
For Lyons, after the failures of the 2010 census, the upcoming count is imperative to his community with funding and representation among the reasons why he participates as an outreach worker, encouraging others to get involved.
“Ten years later, the need is more severe to have a greater output as far as participation for residents,” Lyons said. “I am a West Sider, so it’s a need. Sometimes when you want to see change you need to get involved. You can’t sit on the sideline."