Census Day jump-start goes on despite COVID-19 concerns: ‘Stakes are too high’

For over a year community organizers, Cook County and the U.S. Census Bureau’s regional office have relied on person-to-person interaction to promote the census, but coronavirus “social distancing” guidelines hindered those efforts at the census’ most pivotal time.

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Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Enlace Chicago and Taller de Jose organized a fleet of cars to parade around Little Village to raise awareness for the 2020 census.

Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Enlace Chicago and Taller de Jose organized a fleet of cars to caravan through Little Village on Wednesday, April 1, to promote the 2020 census on Census Day. But precautions taken to stop the spread of coronavirus were still top of mind.

Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

A convoy of cars paraded around Little Village on Wednesday, blasting music and shouts from a bullhorn urging residents to complete their census forms on the nationally recognized “Census Day.”

Under normal circumstances, these organizers would be knocking on doors to raise awareness about the 2020 Census, but these aren’t normal times.

“We still need to promote the census, but obviously with COVID-19 we have to now adapt to what’s happening,” said Katiria Diaz, census coordinator for the nonprofit Enlace Chicago, one of the parade organizers. “We can’t be door-knocking or interacting one-on-one with people, but we still want to be out in the streets getting the message out.”

The caravan through Little Village was organized by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Enlace Chicago and Taller de Jose – each group with roots in the community. More than a dozen cars were decorated with posters and window paint encouraging residents to visit 2020census.gov to complete their census forms.

For over a year the organizers, Cook County and the U.S. Census Bureau’s regional office have relied on person-to-person interaction to get the word out, but the exploding coronavirus pandemic will put to test their local efforts — including door-to-door visits, town halls and community events — as the census shifts into full swing.

In a teleconference early Wednesday, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle acknowledged that the global health crisis is eclipsing news about the Census right now. l

“The coronavirus pandemic has shifted our priorities and changed our lives,” she said.

But “we have to remember the census is still taking place, and we have to remember the stakes are too high not to fill out your census form,” she said.

Preckwinkle reiterated that people can stay home and complete the census online, over the phone (in numerous languages) or by mail.

“I know it is difficult to predict what will happen next week, next month, next year because this crisis has narrowed our focus,” Preckwinkle said. “But we can’t lose sight of the impact of the census, and what impact it will have on all of our communities for the next decade.”

The census is a once-a-decade head count of the entire U.S. population, and the data is used to redraw congressional districts and determine how federal dollars are spent in communities for the next 10 years.

As of March 31, Chicago’s early self-response rate of 31.5% leads New York City (28.0%) and Los Angeles (29.4%). The state’s 42.1% self-response rate also leads New York (33.1%) and California (37.9%).

But census tracts in Little Village — which the Census Bureau deems a hard-to-count community — show the self-response rate ranges from 10% and 15%.

“It’s not surprising to us the Little Village’s response is so low right now,” Diaz said. “A lot of those families are low income and might not have access to the internet, or do they know that phoning in their census is a possibility?”

About 12% of households living in hard-to-count communities don’t have an internet subscription or use an outdated dial-up connection, according to census data.

Still to quell fears about spreading the coronavirus, Diaz said her organization has moved the majority of its outreach efforts to social media.

“We’re doing a ‘social distancing spirit week’ on our Facebook, and today’s theme was getting people to complete their census,” Diaz said. “We’ve also been phone banking a lot.”

And because of the outbreak, the U.S. Census Bureau has extended its deadline for collecting responses through Aug. 14.

Christina Vera, community engagement lead for Cook County’s Census team, said they are working on ways to raise awareness while keeping people safe.

For example, the “We Count Challenge” asks people to create a video or a poster that tells the story of why their family or community should be counted in the census. They are encouraged to share what they make on social media using the hashtag #WeCountChallenge.

“It’s a great opportunity to involve the whole family during those long days at home when people are antsy and restless,” Vera said.

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), left, and organizers from Enlace Chicago, get ready for the Little Village caravan Wednesday, April 1, to raise awareness of the 2020 Census.

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), left, and organizers from Enlace Chicago get ready for the Little Village caravan Wednesday, April 1, to raise awareness of the 2020 Census.

Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

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