Final Push for Chicago Census Participation

It’s crunch time to get an accurate census count. Federal dollars for education, infrastructure and business development programs are at stake.

The Trump administration shortened the period that the count can occur, so all numbers have to be in by the end of this month, pending some court cases. How is Chicago doing, and how do local leaders plan to ramp up participation?

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According to census numbers, Chicago is currently performing at a 59% response rate, while Illinois at large is coming in at 70%, making it one of the top performing states in the nation.

But the city risks an undercount, especially in predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods, which could put federal representation and hundreds of millions in federal dollars for the region at risk.

“Just a 1% undercount could result in the state losing $195 million a year, at a time when we frankly need the most funding we can get,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday at a census participation rally in Little Village.

Groups around the Southwest Side neighborhood set up tents making sure residents filled out their census forms. Nonprofit groups have had to get creative to encourage participation under the tightened deadline, as public officials hammer home what’s at stake in the final weeks.

“The streets, the roads, the things that make our communities vital, they are funded by money from the federal government,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “We need our fair share, and the only way to get there is by making sure everyone is counted.”

There are several factors complicating the count this year. The coronavirus pandemic has limited the ability for people to congregate and for volunteers to go door to door. Violent unrest in many neighborhoods has also been a concern, and the political rhetoric around undocumented immigrants pushing people into the shadows.

Different segments of the city are performing at vastly different rates. Affluent areas on the North and Northwest sides are responding at rates of 70%- 90%. But broad swaths of the South and West sides, in predominantly Latino and African American neighborhoods, the numbers are alarmingly low.

In a place like Little Village, where there is a high population of undocumented immigrants, volunteers have a lot of obstacles to try and get that count up.

“For us, with the political climate that we have and things that have been said in the media about Trump having a memo about immigrants not being counted or that ICE might get this information, it’s really about educating them and saying, ‘No, this is confidential.’ And reminding them this is a chance to have your voice heard. They don’t want it to be heard, so let it be heard,” said Katiria Diaz, a census volunteer with the nonprofit Enlace Chicago.

It’s why Enlace and other groups have held events featuring free tamale and ice cream giveaways, free laundry, and other incentives to encourage participation.

The same holds true for predominantly African American neighborhoods on the South and
West sides like Austin, Garfield Park and North Lawndale. In North Lawndale, groups like the Sinai Community Institute have been canvassing the neighborhood. They too say they have to combat residents’ misgivings and reluctance to participate.

“If they have any kind of police record, sharing their information – is it going to be reported? How can’t it be used against them? How does it impact their families?” said Valerie Sanchez, a program manager for family case management at the Sinai Community Institute. “Once people are reassured that their safety and information is guarded, and we’re only here to help and provide services to them, they’re a little more willing to share their information.”

Several groups suing the federal government has asked the census count continue through the end of October, but census groups say they are operating under the assumption that they will have to complete the count by the end of this month.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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