Leaders prepare for census throughout city, focus on hard-to-count areas

A census 2020 sign stands in the lobby of Chicago City Hall. (Samone Blair/MEDILL)

By Samone Blair
Medill Reports

City officials are teaming up with civic organizations to prepare for the 2020 Census, especially in hard-to-count neighborhoods like predominantly Latino Humboldt Park. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Chicago households responded to the 2010 census at a rate of only 66% whereas 74% of households responded nationwide.

A key consideration for organizers is that the2020 census will differ from years past by allowing households to respond electronically.

While there will be some communities that still receive mailed forms based on low internet access levels, “The majority of it will be online,” explained Adrian Calderon, community outreach manager for the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, which is a Census Information Center, a designation for non-profit organizations responsible for informing citizens about the census.

According to the City University of New York Mapping Service’s Census Hard to Count 2020 Map, 20% to 45.4% of households in Humboldt Park census tracts have no internet service or only a dial-up connection.

“I’m hearing that the libraries are going to be leveraged because they have sort of been that stop gap measure for families with limited digital access so they’ll be…promoting the opportunity to fill out the census there,” said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, associate vice president of policy at the Erikson Institute and a member of the City of Chicago’s Census 2020 Steering Committee.

The city is also planning to place census kiosks in official buildings like City Hall or at schools.

Flags fly at the Chicago Public Library Humboldt Park Branch. Chicago residents will be able to visit their library branch to complete the census. (Samone Blair/MEDILL)

“There has been a historic undercount and particularly framing it in the context of Chicago in general kind of ranking low in terms of big cities and response rate….The goal this round is to get up to 75%” through new strategies and tactics, Pacione-Zayas said.

Pacione-Zayas stated that the committee is particularly focusing on reaching “communities that have historically been undercounted.”

According to the CUNY Mapping Service, a census tract is considered “hard-to-count” if it had a response rate below 73% for the 2010 census.

All of the tracts that make up Humboldt Park are classified as “hard-to-count” with the least responsive of the tracts having a rate of only 49.6% in 2010 based on response and demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“When you look at the census tracts within the city, that information becomes much more helpful from an operational perspective for census stakeholders so they can figure out where they should be focusing their outreach efforts,” explained Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service.

The hard-to-count map also includes demographic information about the tracts that is believed to have an effect on response rates. These range from internet access to ethnic and language information.

“Based on historical analysis the Census Bureau has done, people of color tend to be undercounted at a greater rate than other populations,” Romalewski said.

While the census will not include President Trump’s proposed question about citizenship, Calderon and Pacione-Zayas were both concerned about the effects of it lowering the response rates of the Latino community further.

“There’s still a lot of miseducation where a lot of folks think it may still be on there…ultimately, it’s an opportunity to educate people on the civic process that we all have to participate in irrespective of our immigration status.” Pacione-Zayas said.

“Because of this question of citizenship, it’s really kind of thrown a monkey wrench into a lot of the” preparations for the Census, Calderon said.

To fight the mis-information about the census and the citizenship question, Pacione-Zayas has spoken to various groups and tries to underscore the importance of responding. “I always start off with, the census is all about dollars and democracy,” she said.

Pacione-Zayas is also co-chair of the Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the Puerto Rican community in the city. She pointed out that several organizations related to the community, including the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, have received grants from the state for census outreach.

“California had received something like $35 million for get-out-the-census initiatives. Illinois, I believe, received $20 million. But if you cut that by population, we received a larger funding per individual in California and I think it was labeled as the largest,” claimed Calderon.

In regards to engaging the Latino community in the first ward with the census, Alderman Daniel La Spata said, “I think that it goes back to the initiatives we’re talking about with the Latino Caucus, like thinking about where are the spaces that the Latino community in the First Ward feels safe, feels respected, feels welcome.”

In tracts with high numbers of residents speaking Spanish or English as a second language, households “will be receiving bilingual Spanish and English instructions for how to fill out the census questionnaire,” Romalewski said.

All of these efforts are in place to ensure Chicago has an accurate population count for the next ten years.

Many federal programs base their grants on population. According to the Census Bureau, “Each year the federal government distributes more than $675 billion to states and communities based on Census Bureau data.”

“The grant dollars we get as a city are in large part determined by population,” Alderman La Spata said. “And so if we don’t have a complete count, if everyone isn’t counted, it will show a direct hit on our budget for years to come.”

Photo at top: A census 2020 sign stands in the lobby of Chicago City Hall. (Samone Blair/MEDILL)