State and local officials in Illinois are scrambling to prepare residents for the 2020 census, which kicks off on April 1 next year. Experts say next year’s decennial head count faces several new challenges, especially in communities with historically low participation rates.
The so-called “hard-to-count” communities are places where the census participation rate — the number of households that mail in their questionnaires — is typically low.
“People of color, people who are renting, people who don’t speak English well, people who are immigrants — these are all communities that may get undercounted partly because of the political climate, but also because of historical trends,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the City University of New York (CUNY) Mapping Service.
Romalewski created a map of the hard-to-count communities based on data from the 2010 census.
That year, Cook County’s self-response rate was 77 percent, which means that the U.S. Census Bureau had to send workers to knock on doors and, in some cases, made guesses — based on data and other factors — to account for the remaining 23 percent.
“That non-response follow-up phase is very expensive, very complex, it involves hiring hundreds of thousands of census workers on a temporary basis throughout the country,” Romalewski said. “It is the operation where there’s the greatest risk that people will get missed or counted inaccurately.”
According to the CUNY map, 32 percent of Cook County residents live in hard-to-count communities, compared to 16 percent statewide. The areas with the lowest self-response rates in the 2010 census were on Chicago’s South and West sides, as well as some in the south suburbs.
New challenges in 2020
In next year’s census, the undercount may be worsened by a number of factors.
For the 2020 census, instead of just mailing in a census questionnaire, residents will have three options to participate: fill out the questionnaire online, respond over the phone, or turn in a paper copy.
“There are so many cyber-security risks that need to be addressed in order for the online portal to be safe and secure for people to report their household data,” said Anita Banerji, director of the Democracy Initiative at Forefront, a group leading census outreach in the state.
She added that even if security issues are addressed, some residents simply don’t trust submitting their information online and many communities have limited internet access. Hard-to-count communities on Chicago’s South and West sides as well as in the south suburbs and near west suburbs are also areas with low rates of internet access, according to census data.
The other wild card is the Trump administration's proposal to add a citizenship question to the census for the first time in 70 years. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the case on April 23.
Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore, who leads the county's Complete Count Commission, said that if the citizenship question is approved, the change could hurt hard-to-count communities.
"I think it’s horrendous to ask if a person is a U.S. citizen on that questionnaire,” Moore said. “Because if they’re not a U.S. citizen and they’re afraid to fill out the questionnaire, they would just avoid it.”
CUNY’s Romalewski says regardless of whether or not a citizenship question is included, the damage may already have been done. “The political climate is different, and the fears are heightened,” he said. “[The debate over the citizenship question] has already added to the fears and concerns people have.”
The underfunding of the census is another problem, experts said. The Trump administration has dedicated fewer dollars to the count, which means fewer door-knockers for the enumeration stage, less advertising campaign money and less outreach to hard-to-count communities.
On top of that, state money for census preparation efforts in Illinois has been slow to materialize. So far, Illinois has dedicated just $1.5 million for census prep, but state lawmakers are debating a bill that would secure $33 million, said Cook County’s Moore. In contrast, California has already approved $100 million to prepare residents for the census, while New York has set aside $40 million, according to Moore.
Given these challenges, and with just one year left, Moore said his group is partnering with existing organizations to pass out literature, distribute T-shirts with census messaging and host screenings of educational videos about the census, among other activities.
“You want that census to be on people’s minds,” Moore said. “That will start to resonate in the population and people will say, ‘This is something important, something I need to be participating in.’”
Forefront's Banerji said her group organized a tweetstorm on Monday calling attention to the census over social media. Forefront is also hosting a Census Summit on April 3 in Springfield, where Gov. JB Pritzker is scheduled to speak.
What’s at stake?
Illinois stands to lose representation in Congress, as many as two seats by some predictions, and federal dollars for more than 300 programs.
The state could lose well over $120 million in funding each year if the census misses just 1 percent of Illinois residents, according to a George Washington University study that seeks to illustrate the financial impact of an undercount.
“Fundamentally, the idea here is to have people recognize the consequences of an undercount fiscally,” said Andrew Reamer, the study’s author.
Missing residents in the decennial count would also “screw up” the American Community Survey (ACS), Reamer added. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the ACS each year.
While not nearly as robust as the decennial census counts, the annual survey is considered the data workhorse for the allocation of federal spending, Reamer said. “If you miss a bunch of poor people in Cook County [in the decennial census], then you’re going to survey too few people in the ACS.”
Reamer also said the effects of missing hard-to-count communities are enduring.
“If you miss anybody, whether it’s two people or 102,000 people, they’re gone for the decade,” he said.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.