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Groups aim to reach city’s hard-to-count residents in 2020 Census: ‘If there is an undercount, that voice is lost’

Community groups are working toward an accurate count on Census Day.

Grace Chan (right) and Michelle Gan canvass Bridgeport weeks before the 2020 U.S. Census is set to kick off.
Grace Chan, left, and Michelle Gan canvass Bridgeport weeks before the 2020 U.S. Census is set to kick off.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Grace Chan stood in the middle of a bustling Bridgeport coffee shop flanked by three others. They didn’t grab coffee but instead passed around clipboards with maps of the area they soon would canvass.

For months, the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community have walked city blocks and knocked on doors alerting residents to the importance of the upcoming 2020 U.S. census.

On April 1, the Census Bureau will embark on a decennial headcount of the nation’s entire population. Chan, the coalition director, hopes their groundwork can raise awareness about the importance of the census.

The results of that count will determine how federal funds are distributed, the number of seats a state has in the House of Representatives, the redrawing of congressional districts and a state’s number of electors for the next 10 years.

What happens if the Census Bureau gets it wrong? A miscount will spell disaster in already under-resourced cities and towns throughout Illinois, Chan said.

Central to those fears are what the bureau deems “hard-to-count populations” — people who the bureau worries will rebuff knocks on their door and therefore won’t be tallied.

The “hard-to-count” population in Chicago is estimated to be around 1.3 million people concentrated in low-income communities like Austin, Humboldt Park, South Shore, Chicago Lawn, Little Village, North Lawndale and West Englewood.

More than 372,000 people in those seven neighborhoods alone are at risk of not being counted, according to the census estimates.

There is no one reason why it’s difficult to get an accurate count, but language barriers and a distrust of the federal government rank high on the list.

In October, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the city would work toward an accurate count by spending $2.7 million — about $2 for every hard-to-count resident. Lightfoot also urged business leaders in Chicago to match the $500,000 the city is using to fund community organizations working on outreach.

The city’s goal of a 75% response rate for this census is ambitious compared with the 66% response 10 years ago — the worst among big cities.

Maricela García reads to Yennya Segura’s daughter at Gads Hill Center in October 2019. Her organization is working to educate people about the 2020 census.
Maricela García reads to Yennya Segura’s daughter at Gads Hill Center in October 2019. Her organization is working to educate people about the 2020 census.
Archivo Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Illinois is already expected to lose one congressional seat because of population loss; an undercount of just 1% could cost the state a second seat.

It will also affect funding for federal programs like Highway Planning and Construction, Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Section 8 Housing and Head Start that rely on the decennial census data.

“We know our community will benefit from having a political voice, and if there is an undercount, that voice is lost, said Kareem Butler, the Chicago Urban League’s 2020 Census policy coordinator. “Infrastructure is already something that is depleted in these areas and without adequate funding it will become more dire over the next 10 years.”

The census will mostly be conducted online for the first time, but census takers will be sent out to find people who don’t respond. The goal of a digital census is to make it easier and more accessible, but reliable internet access isn’t universal.

“There’s an issue of internet access in the African American community, and this poses socioeconomic questions about who has access to the internet?” Butler said.

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.

Butler said the organization sees the 2020 census as a way of improving conditions in already disinvested neighborhoods. For more than a century, the Urban League has worked toward “economic, educational and social progress” for African Americans in the city.

It has invested in transforming its offices at 4510 S. Michigan Ave. into a “census center” where people can use computers to fill out the census form.

“We also want to make sure we are an information hub so that people can feel comfortable asking us questions,” said Butler.

Why are people afraid of the 2020 Census?

A census undercount is not only a matter of accessibility. It is also driven by fear, said Maricela García, CEO of Gads Hill Center.

People often wrongly believe their personal information will be shared if they complete the census. This misconception is stoked by the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policy and its failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, she said.

Grace Chan, left, and Michelle Gan knocked on homes in Bridgeport to tell residents about the upcoming 2020 census.
Grace Chan, left, and Michelle Gan knocked on homes in Bridgeport to tell residents about the upcoming 2020 census.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

That fear persists despite the U.S. Supreme Court blocking the citizenship question from showing up on census forms.

“People don’t believe the government is really going to maintain that their the data is confidential and they won’t share it with other agencies,” said García. “Many families don’t trust the government today, and that is a legitimate concern.”

García said her organization is focusing on assuring people their information won’t be shared with other federal agencies like the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Our organization focuses on bringing the resources to build for the future in the communities we service,” Garcia said. “Without the resources allocated through a proper census count this will be harder to achieve.”

Gads Hill Center, 4255 S. Archer Ave., will also serve as a 2020 census hub.

The Urban League’s Butler said skepticism of the census comes from a “real place of fear and cynicism.” Groups must acknowledge people’s angst while reassuring them the 2020 census is safe.

For one, those facing legal battles can be apprehensive about the census. They could also fear their information being shared with landlords.

“People don’t want to get kicked out of their apartment for listing someone in their census form who is not on their apartment lease,” Butler said. “We have to take the time and assure them their information won’t be shared with their landlord or employer.”

It’s also about being upfront about the importance of the census.

“The census is not a broad or wide sweeping solution to every single problem in every single community,” Butler said. “But it is part of what is going to help secure progress for the next 10 years, and that is what we have to remind folks.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.