Don’t let coronavirus stop you from being counted in the 2020 Census

The Census Bureau has suspended some field operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Illinois and Chicago can’t afford for anyone to go uncounted.

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A worker gets ready to pass out instructions on how to fill out the 2020 census.

A worker gets ready to pass out instructions on how to fill out the 2020 census.

AP Photo/John Amis, File

Most of us are understandably preoccupied with the latest news about COVID-19. So much else goes unnoticed.

But we want to remind you that the 2020 Census is underway, despite huge roadblocks put up by the coronavirus, and it matters greatly.

If you haven’t responded to the census notice that arrived in most mailboxes last week with instructions on how to complete the form online, we urge you to do so now.

An accurate count of every person who resides in our country will grow only more difficult to achieve in the next few weeks and months as the coronavirus continues to shut down normal social interactions. At risk is Illinois’ fair share of more than $675 billion in federal funds. The results of this census, which is conducted every 10 years, also will decide how many seats Illinois continues to hold in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Suspensions and delays

On Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau suspended some field operations because of the coronavirus outbreak. That means there will be a two-week delay, at the very least, in sending census workers door-to-door and building to building to survey people who live in group quarters, such as nursing homes and prisons. A three-day local count of the homeless also has been delayed.

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In addition, in-person outreach sessions at churches, community centers and the like have been put on hold. And census kickoff events in some cities, such as Detroit and Columbus, Ohio, have been called off.

In Chicago, a plan to set up computer kiosks in public spaces so that people can get information and respond to the census has been put on hold. And community groups are being forced to turn to social media and phone banks, rather than face-to-face interactions, to reach hard-to-count groups, such as immigrants.

“The hope is we stem this tide and see how everything shakes out,” Nubia Willman, of Chicago’s Office of New Americans and a member of the Illinois Complete Count Commission, told us. “We want people to fill the form out online. The sooner people fill it out, the better, so no one has to come to their home.”

The poor at a disadvantage

The census is being conducted online for the first time this year. That’s an obvious and unexpected advantage for getting the job done at a time when Americans are hunkering down at home because of the virus. But our nation’s digital divide — not everybody has easy access to the internet, even in 2020 — works against a full census count in rural and high-poverty areas.

For now, census workers still are scheduled to fan out in May to homes that have not responded online or by phone.

Nationally, 11 million people so far have completed the census. In a country of some 327 million people, that’s just 3% of the population — a drop in the bucket. It will take a herculean effort, this time around, to count everyone.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross suggested days ago that the census could be extended beyond the current July 31 deadline. On Friday, he extended that deadline two weeks — not long enough, in our view, to make sure the count is as complete as possible.

There’s every reason to believe, scientists say, that the coronavirus pandemic will continue at least into early summer. It could also mimic the flu and return next fall.

“Everyone is coming to terms with what this new normal means,” Willman said. “If we could delay (completion) until the fall, that would be helpful.” 

Chicagoans can expect to see more public service announcements encouraging online census participation starting next week. Much is at stake. In 2010, Chicago managed only an abysmal 66% participation rate, among the worst rates for all big cities. The city must do better.

Why it matters

Illinois receives about $34 billion a year in federal funds that are distributed based on population, according to a 2017 report from George Washington University. Every uncounted resident costs the state $18,000 for everything from transportation projects to public schools to housing to health care services to crime-victim assistance.

Illinois also stands to lose a seat in Congress because of declining population. That could become two lost seats if there is a significant undercount.

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