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Census caravan in South Chicago June 2020

A small caravan of cars drive through the South Chicago neighborhood in June to promote participation in the 2020 Census. In some parts of that community, the census response rate is less than half the national average.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang

Census Deadline Change Sparks Fears Of An Undercount In Some Chicago Neighborhoods

The office of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and groups looking to boost the census count in the Chicago area expressed frustration on Tuesday after the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it will move up the deadline to complete the 2020 count by a month.

The U.S. Census Bureau released a statement late Monday announcing that the agency will end data collection by Sept. 30. All door-knocking operations and self-response methods will shut down on that date, instead of the previously announced Oct. 31 deadline.

Maria Fitzsimmons, census director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) said groups are expressing “exasperation and disappointment … and really a sense of being jerked around at this point.”

Fitzsimmons added that groups partnering with ICIRR remain determined and committed to help their communities get counted. “We’re not going to let it deter us. We’re going to keep working,” she said. “We really shouldn’t have to feel like we’re fighting our own government in order to do this constitutionally mandated, very important activity.”

Before COVID-19 hit the United States, the census bureau had planned to finish counting by the end of July. But as the coronavirus spread throughout the country, the agency announced in April that it would extend its deadline to Oct. 31, with President Donald Trump publicly supporting the change.

In recent weeks, however, the census bureau began signaling a change in plans, with the bureau’s director Steven Dillingham testifying last week before a congressional committee that “the Census Bureau and others really want us to proceed as rapidly as possible.” Dillingham’s testimony also comes after a July 21 Trump administration memo called for the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from the apportionment base — the number used to divide up seats in Congress.

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Lightfoot said that the Trump administration’s decision to move up the census deadline “is a reckless and cynical ploy to stifle a full count of our nation’s residents and prevent the voices of our communities from being heard.” The statement also said the city will “continue to double-down our efforts to reach every one of our community members and make our democracy count.”

Chicago’s census self-response rate is just below 56%, compared to 63% nationwide. In some parts of the city’s South and West sides — including areas in the Little Village, Englewood and South Chicago neighborhoods — those numbers fall below 30%.

Katiria Diaz, the census coordinator for Enlace Chicago in Little Village, said the shortened timeline will hurt the work her group has been doing to boost the census count in that neighborhood, which is known for its Mexican immigrant community.

“The community is already fearful,” Diaz said. “You have to educate them first and ease their fears and their worries and then get to that stage of, ‘OK, now let’s fill it out.’ So now that we have limited time to do that, it’s gonna impact us drastically.”

Groups doing outreach to predominantly Black communities on the South Side also expressed concerns about the truncated census.

“It would hurt our ability to be able to get to as many people as we had intended to get to, via the strategy that we initially established,” said Michael Holmes, the census project director for Community Assistance Programs. He oversees seven groups doing census outreach, including two in Englewood. In parts of that community, the response rate is around 25%.

Holmes added that the shortened census count also impacts employment prospects for the census bureau’s enumerators and for outreach workers hired by local nonprofits.

“[The census] created some employment opportunities for people, and so now you’re gonna knock people off at least a month from those employment situations,” he said.

Jay Young, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Illinois, said he hopes Congress will act to extend the deadline, “but to the extent to which we are allowing politics to play out over basic health decisions, over core aspects of our democracy, I honestly don’t know what will happen.”

So far, Democrats have introduced bills to extend the census deadlines, but Republicans have not brought forth any such legislation.

Young added that many of the parts of the city that are showing low census response rates are also areas that have been hit hard by COVID-19 and other challenges. He said these communities now stand to lose millions of dollars “for child care, for school lunches, for investments in the community.”

“It means that their representation in Congress stands to be diluted. It means that their ability to change the trajectory of their lives … is going to be potentially missed,” Young added. “This policy decision is going to mean that millions of those families are going to go uncounted, and it will enshrine some of this suffering for the next decade.”

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.

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