With less than a year left before census 2020 mailers are sent out, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced this week the creation of a Complete Count Committee to ensure that residents from the city’s “hard-to-count” communities are included in the decennial head count. The committee meets for the first time on Friday at City Hall.
While experts have said Illinois is behind on census prep — the state has yet to secure substantial funding for outreach efforts — an official with the U.S. Census Bureau says that the region is on target.
“With some of the turnover across the United states in terms of the governor’s offices, the mayor’s offices, I think that what we’re seeing in Illinois is pretty typical of what’s going on across the country,” said Ellisa Johnson, assistant regional census manager for the Chicago Region, an area that includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and even Arkansas.
Johnson said that on April 1, which marked exactly one year before the 2020 census, many cities in the region, including Milwaukee and St. Paul, Minn., announced their complete count committees.
Budget constraints have meant fewer boots on the ground working with governmental units early in the preparation phase, and slower delivery of census literature and training materials, Johnson said. But “now we’re on task.”
Johnson, who was part of Cook County’s census outreach efforts in 2010, added that the creation of these complete count committees is crucial to ensure an accurate census next year.
“We know here in the Chicago region that that structure works,” she said. “We’ve seen the participation rates increase in 2010 from the 2000 census, and a lot of that is really attributed to the work of those complete count committees.”
The most effective complete count groups, Johnson added, have numerous subcommittees focused on digital efforts and millennial outreach, for example, and even a recruiting arm that helps the bureau hire workers.
A City Hall spokesman said in an email statement that Chicago’s committee will address those issues, as well as outreach to specific communities like veterans, racial minorities, infants, individuals returning home from prison, individuals with disabilities, refugees and homeless populations. He added that the committee will grow in number over the course of the year and also partner with city departments and agencies such as schools, libraries, the Chicago Housing Authority and the City Clerk’s Office.
Committee member Griselda Vega Samuel, who also sits on the Illinois Complete Count Commission, said she was invited to join the city’s group last week.
“Now is better than six months from now, which is the alternative had they waited until the new mayor came into place,” said Vega Samuel, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She said MALDEF began its census outreach work in January 2018.
Vega Samuel and 26 other committee members from diverse civic, cultural and community organizations will recommend strategies to reach “hard-to-count” residents over the next year.
“Every level of our government has been engaged in conversations [about the census]. It just seems like momentum is building,” said committee co-chair Rebecca Shi, executive director at the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition.
Shi said her group, which is a coalition of employers, business associations and entrepreneurs, will aim to reach residents through business owners telling employees and customers about the census. She hopes businesses will also become “hotspots,” where census outreach workers can help residents fill out their questionnaires.
Victor Dickson, who leads Safer Foundation, a nonprofit that helps people with criminal records find employment, also sits on the committee. He said he hopes the work of the committee will help residents with arrest and conviction records understand the importance of being counted.
“Federal funding flows to the state for workforce development, for apprenticeship programs, for training programs,” Dickson said. “We’ve got to help people understand the importance of being part of the census and being counted.”
Johnson, of the Chicago regional office, said that while outreach and messaging are important, the census bureau’s priority at this point is hiring enough census workers in the coming months. She said she hopes that the competitive pay and flexible hours will help recruit “trusted voices” to help the head count, especially in communities where the participation rate has been low.
Chicago’s census participation rate, historically, has lagged behind the state’s. In 2010, the city had a participation rate of 66 percent, which means that 34 percent of households did not mail back their 2010 census questionnaires. The state’s participation rate that year was 76 percent. The community areas in Chicago with the most census tracts with participation rates below 50 percent in 2010 were North Lawndale, South Lawndale, Englewood and New City.
Coordination and planning are vital in census prep work. The area with the lowest census participation rate in the state in 2010 was a South Side census tract where the Harold Ickes public housing development once stood. The participation rate there was just 22 percent in the 2010 census, which was conducted as the Chicago Housing Authority was in the process of demolishing the 11 nine-story high-rises on the site.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.