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Chicago to spend $2.7 million to boost U.S. Census count

Chicago’s 66% response rate in the 2010 census was among the worst of any big U.S. city. This year’s 75% goal won’t be easy amid a cloud of fear caused by workplace enforcement action.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot holds a City Hall news conference Tuesday.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday outlined the city’s plan to spent $2.7 million to ensure an accurate U.S. Census count.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chicago will spend $2.7 million — $2 for every “hard-to-count” resident — to ensure an accurate 2020 U.S. Census and cut through the cloud of fear created by immigration raids and a nixed citizenship question, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday.

A divided U.S. Supreme Court has blocked the Trump administration’s threat to add a citizenship question to the census form.

But the mere threat, coupled with recent workplace raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has created “a lot of fear” that must be overcome, Lightfoot said.

“The average person is … worried about, `Am I gonna have a job? Am I gonna be here for my kids?’ If you’re a child, worrying about whether your parents are gonna be here. Those are real, palpable fears,” the mayor said.

“I understand it completely, which is why we are continuously doing what we can to be present in immigrant and refugee communities … and push back against the way in which ICE has really been weaponized as part of a political campaign of President Trump.”

Lightfoot said the city must counter what she called “the prevailing conservative, anti-immigrant message.”

“We’re looking at $1,400 per year per person that we stand to lose if we don’t get people counted. You add that up across tens of thousands over a decade, that’s real money that’s not coming to Chicago,” the mayor said.

“We can make a very compelling case as to why this is, in some ways, the ultimate form of protest. To be counted and not let somebody treat you as invisible and drive you into the shadows. … Stand up, fight back, be counted.”

Although $860 billion and a “decade’s worth of consequences” hang in the balance, Lightfoot noted Chicago “does not have a strong track record” for ensuring all residents, even in the hardest-to-reach places, are counted.

Ten years ago, Chicago’s 66% response rate was “among the worst participation levels” of any big city in the nation, she said. This year’s goal is an ambitious 75%.

That’s what the $2.7 million is about.

It will be used to implement “creative, strategic technology solutions to address gaps” in computer and internet access and to bankroll community organizations charged with reaching out to the 48% of Chicago’s population identified as hard to count.

The list includes: immigrants; refugees; renters; the homeless; people with disabilities; non-English speakers; children under five; senior citizens; and college students.

Internet access and computer literacy is essential, since the 2020 Census will be the first which can be completed online..

The grassroots campaign will get a giant assist from Chicago-based advertising giant FCB. The firm is donating its time to build a citywide public awareness campaign relying less on mass media and more on “micro-targeting” by “people they trust in each neighborhood to reach them,” according to Michael Fassnacht, president and CEO of FCB Chicago.

“Our core communications challenge will focus on changing the perception of what the survey is. It is not just another boring, simple government survey. It is a true tool of empowerment,” Fassnacht said.

To reach what he called the “very ambitious” goal of a 75% response rate, Fassnacht called on other business leaders to join FCB in providing pro-bono services.

“Step up. [Don’t] be passive bystanders in this time of uncertainty,” he said.

Also on Tuesday, Lightfoot reaffirmed her commitment to take the job of redrawing Chicago’s ward boundaries (using those census results) out of the City Council’s hands and put it into the hands of an independent commission.

She noted that neighborhoods like Englewood and Back of the Yards have been “carved up” into three, four or five different wards. That makes it “difficult for residents to feel like there’s a level of accountability on the part of City Council members,” she said.

“We’ve got to do a better job of reflecting natural neighborhood boundaries.”