Illinois Plans For Census Outreach Raise Concerns | WBEZ
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Process To Spend $20 Million For Census Outreach In Illinois Raises Concerns

Illinois has set aside more than $20 million to get the word out about next year’s census, but a coalition of more than 50 local groups says the state’s process of doling out the funds needs work.

The Illinois Count Me In 2020 coalition sent a letter to the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) this week about the state’s “hub and spoke” model of disbursing the money.

The IDHS divided the state into 12 regions, with a focus on “hard to count” populations — communities where the census self-response rates have been historically low.

The state is hoping that more than a dozen regional intermediaries — larger municipalities and organizations with more resources — would apply for some of the $20 million.

The IDHS has divided that pot into smaller amounts for each region, depending on their size and needs. For example, the Chicago region could receive the most, about $9 million, according to the IDHS. Suburban Cook County could receive up to $3.5 million, the collar counties up to $2.2 million with downstate regions in line amounts up to about $900,000.

Smaller groups on the ground can apply to become a subgrantee of the regional intermediaries. But groups in the Illinois Count Me In 2020 coalition expressed concerns that the state’s process is confusing and lacks flexibility.

“There are … a lot of questions about what kind of reporting is going to be asked of them, how they can work with others,” said Steven Monroy, a staff attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), one of the groups leading the coalition.

“The worst case is that the money does not get out the door soon enough and is not available in a timely manner to start doing a lot of the work for the [census],” Monroy said.

Census advocates say Illinois has more to lose in next year’s headcount than just about any other state. It stands to lose up to two congressional seats and billions in federal funding, if there is an undercount.

In June, Gov. JB Pritzker penned an executive order fleshing out the state’s $29 million census prep efforts — the most money per capita spent on census outreach in the country. About $4 million is set aside for advertising campaigns; another $5 million is reserved to address any “gaps” after the $20 million is disbursed to the 12 regions.

Per Pritzker’s executive order, the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) — essentially a call for bids — was released on July 31. Since then, Monroy said, numerous organizations have expressed concerns about whether they have the capacity to serve as regional intermediaries. There are also questions about municipalities that straddle more than one region on the map and organizations that serve multiple regions throughout the state.

“[The state’s] framework is just causing a lot of confusion already,” Monroy said at a meeting of the state’s Census Advisory Panel on Friday. “I don’t know of a lot of organizations that are coming forward as regional intermediaries.”

Monroy also said advocates are concerned about smaller organizations not having the capacity to comply with the state’s requirements for reporting. He said the state has done an admirable job of creating a website and providing lists of the steps required, but a lot more support is needed for smaller organizations. “We hope that the state remains open to hearing back and making appropriate changes to their policy based upon what happens on the ground,” Monroy said.

All grantees and subgrantees must comply with the Grant Accountability and Transparency Act (GATA), which is designed to ensure accountability and fairness in the state’s grantmaking in order to protect taxpayers.

The advocates’ concerns are “very real,” said IDHS Secretary Grace Hou.

“But we have to balance between expediency in terms of deploying the funds with being a strong steward of those dollars,” she said. “At the end of the day, we can’t change what the requirements are.”

Hou said she is “optimistic” that enough regional intermediaries and subgrantees will apply for the grants, pointing to robust participation from groups in a recent webinar about the NOFO and application process.

The NOFO closes on Sept. 6. According to an IDHS timeline, the regional intermediaries will be announced in early October; subrecipients will be notified about their funding in early November.

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

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