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Census response rates in city, state are strong overall, but some communities lag

Early financial investment for the 2020 census from local government is to thank for the good starting, several community groups say.

Response rates for the 2020 Census have been encouraging in Chicago and Illinois overall, but pockets of the city are far below that average.
Sun-Times file

Early U.S. Census Bureau numbers show more than half the forms mailed to Illinois households — and nearly half of those sent to Chicago — have been filled out, despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s crippling effect on outreach.

As of April 19, 75 million households have responded to the census nationwide — 3 million in Illinois. The state’s 55.4% response rate is tenth-best in the country; Minnesota’s 60.6% leads the pack. Illinois is also the most populous state in the top 10.

Chicago’s self-response rate of 44.4% also leads other major cities like New York City (40%) and Los Angeles (41.8%).

Early financial investment for the 2020 census from local government is to thank for the good starting, several community groups say. Illinois fronted $29 million for census work; Cook County also put up $4 million, with $2.7 million coming from Chicago.

Though overall city and state figures look good, some neighborhoods are still falling severely behind.

But a closer look at a few census tracts in Little Village, for example, shows a response rate below 20%; a census tract covers several city blocks.

“In Illinois a lot of money has been invested for the census, like every time I turn on the radio I hear advertising or I see billboards about the census,” said Katiria Diaz, census coordinator for the nonprofit Enlace Chicago. “But if we’re talking about Little Village, we have to be realistic. There are a lot of things weighing people down.”

Diaz, whose organization works primarily in Little Village, said the COVID-19 outbreak is just one reason for the low count there. People are also jobless or trying to home-school their kids now, she said. She also pointed to the recent demolition debacle of a 95-year-old smokestack that covered the neighborhood in dust.

“It’s these things, then there are communication and trust barriers that prevent people from prioritizing the census,” Diaz said.

Ordinarily groups like hers would meet with people and address any distrust they have about the census or even help translate forms if need. But that work has been stalled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Some census tracts in North Lawndale, Englewood and New City also have response rates just above 20%.

Kareem Butler, the Chicago Urban League’s 2020 Census policy coordinator, said concerns still loom in hard-to-count communities. It isn’t surprising many still lag in responding, though there have been some strides.

“We look predominately at African American communities, and some of them are doing better now than they did at the end of 2010’s census,” Butler said. “There’s a lot of positivity here, but having said that, there is still work to do.”

One Austin census tract, in contrast, had a 41.7% response rate, exceeding the 37% rate in 2010.

In recent weeks the U.S. Census Bureau has acted to protect the health and safety of people in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. Since March, all 2020 census field operations have been canceled.

The bureau has extended its deadline to complete the census to Oct. 31 from the already extended deadline of Aug. 14. The bureau hopes extending the deadline will provide a more accurate count; that’s crucial in determining government funding for various communities over the next decade.

Marilyn Sanders, the bureau’s Chicago regional director, said census takers are scheduled to start going door to door on August 14.

Last week, President Donald Trump asked for a 120-day delay on some data-reporting deadlines, extending them from December to April.

Diaz and Butler believe postponing the census any longer would be a mistake.

“We, like so many other groups, have emphasized our ground work and we’ve built so much already,” Diaz said. “To stop it altogether or push it to next year will hurt the momentum we’ve already gained.”

Butler said the deadline extension was necessary but also forces them to publicize a new deadline, a change that could sow more confusion around the once-a-decade count.

It also raises financial concerns, he said.

“We’ve all been given these grants, they’re for a limited time and when that funding is dried up, we have to figure out how are we going to keep doing our work,” Butler said.

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.