Report: The Chicago Region Is At Risk For A Census Undercount

Census forms in Spanish
This Spanish-language census form says that the census is safe and that responses to the questionnaire will not be used against people. Census response rates in some Chicago-area communities, particularly Latino areas, lag far behind their rates from the previous census. Advocates say the response has been low in some immigrant communities due to fears of immigration enforcement. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News
Census forms in Spanish
This Spanish-language census form says that the census is safe and that responses to the questionnaire will not be used against people. Census response rates in some Chicago-area communities, particularly Latino areas, lag far behind their rates from the previous census. Advocates say the response has been low in some immigrant communities due to fears of immigration enforcement. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News

Report: The Chicago Region Is At Risk For A Census Undercount

With less than a month before the U.S. Census Bureau stops counting, a new report shows the Chicago area is at risk of a census undercount, especially among communities of color.

Thus far in this year’s count, some Chicago-area communities are showing self-response rates that are more than 20 percentage points below those from the 2010 census, according to a recent report from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).

Erin Aleman, the agency’s executive director, said the trend is disheartening.

“Just because we count less people or get less money, that doesn’t mean we have less people or services to distribute across the region,” she said. “Whether it’s housing or whether it’s infrastructure, those are things that still have to happen for everyone in a community regardless or not if they were counted.”

According to the report, Hispanic communities, both in Chicago and the suburbs, have the biggest drops in participation since 2010. Black and Asian communities are also showing lower response rates. In contrast, communities with predominantly white residents are matching their self-response rates from 2010.

The census count determines political representation and federal funding. Aleman said one recent example of how an undercount could hurt the state is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill Congress passed in response to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the state’s population had been just 5% less, Aleman said, Illinois would have missed out on $235.5 million in COVID-19 relief funds. “That’s money that goes directly to communities to help deal with crisis,” she said.

Aleman added that fears among immigrants, the pandemic and the lack of tech accessibility with the census going online have all affected residents’ participation.

Chicago’s census self-response rate is at around 58%, compared to almost 70% 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 are closer to 30%.

In the remaining weeks before the U.S. Census Bureau concludes enumeration, community organizations are scrambling to encourage residents to fill out the census.

Ignacio Medina, who leads census outreach efforts for Erie Neighborhood House, says his group is focused on boosting the numbers in Little Village, as well as nearby west suburban Cicero and Berwyn.

Medina said even after months of outreach, many undocumented immigrants in Latino communities are afraid to fill out the census. “They think [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is going to show up at their door,” Medina said. Some, he added, are still asking, “This is only for citizens, right?”

Medina also said residents he’s reaching out to have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. “The last thing on their mind is the census,” he said. “They are thinking, ‘How am I going to recover? How am I going to pay my bills? How am I going to provide for my family?”

Medina’s group is setting up tables in front of local businesses and inside government buildings to provide information about the census and to also help residents fill out the questionnaire.

On Thursday, at a press conference in Berwyn, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker urged residents to fill out the census and to encourage friends and neighbors to do the same.

“We have only 27 days left to get counted,” Pritzker said, adding that “the stakes could not be higher.”

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