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Coronavirus is crippling Chicago's census outreach

Lori Lightfoot/Twitter

The coronavirus is stymying Chicago's efforts to improve its count in the 2020 census, a potentially lasting consequence of the pandemic that could cost the city and Illinois both political influence and billions of federal dollars over the next decade.

With a summer census completion deadline looming, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and community organizers had hoped to have an army of more than 2,000 volunteers last week blanketing train stations, bus stops, grocery stores and other public spots in dozens of Chicago neighborhoods as part of an unprecedented campaign to educate reluctant residents and make sure they are counted.

Only 30 volunteers signed up.

The effort was mothballed after the coronavirus outbreak, a move that could hurt plans to see an increased count of residents, especially in African American and Latino communities where tallies are traditionally low.

Now the city is looking at its options, including robust public service announcements.

"We knew there were many barriers. With the hard-to-count areas, we felt it was very important to mobilize," said Nubia Willman, director of the city's Office of New Americans. "Now, all of this is upended."

The local hurdles mirror some of those being seen nationwide as census officials try to deal with the fallout of the pandemic. Last week, the Census Bureau announced in order to protect residents and bureau employees it was suspending field operations until April 1 and extended the census completion deadline two weeks to mid-August from the end of July.

Today, Lightfoot stressed the need for an extension because many of the community-based organizations working on the census have been "repurposed" to respond to the coronavirus.

"We need all hands on deck to address this current crisis. . . .There is not enough bandwidth to do both," she said. "The libraries now are closed, so that avenue for filling out the digital application isn't available."

These latest problems are occurring following a widespread, yearslong concern that President Donald Trump's administration was actively trying to suppress the once-in-a-decade census count in immigrant communities. 

"There are a lot of issues, and one is just distrust of government," said Jenné Myers, chief executive of the nonprofit Chicago Cares. "Face to face matters for so many things."

Myers' group was organizing the canvass, part of a broad effort by the Lightfoot administration to boost participation, a campaign that relies heavily on personal contact and public events. Another part of the city's effort calls for expanded public access to computers and the internet.

City Hall committed $2.7 million toward a census outreach campaign this year. In 2010, only two-thirds of Chicago residents mailed in their census surveys, an initial effort Lightfoot said she wanted to increase to three-quarters this year.

Followup efforts lifted the 2010 response rate to more than 90 percent, but the initial lack of participation in 2010 illustrates the challenge this year. The local outreach efforts are in addition to the U.S. Census' own delayed field operations. Residents are also encouraged to participate online


The implications of a potential undercount are huge. 

The census count is used to determine the flow of money into the state from the federal government, which amounted to almost $56 billion in fiscal 2017 alone, according to an analysis by George Washington University research professor Andrew Reamer. 

The dollars go toward Illinois roads, schools, health care and social programs. The census is also used to determine how many members of Congress are chosen to represent the state, which has seen its population decline over the past decade.

The federal government's response in the aftermath of coronavirus and dollars allocated to public health officials in Chicago will depend heavily on census data, said Reamer, a national expert on census research.

An undercount certainly would mean billions of dollars that should be coming to Chicago going elsewhere, Reamer said. "Is Chicago going to get a fair share of that pie?"

In 2010, Chicago's poor mail-in showing in the census ranked among the worst of the nation's 20 biggest cities, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition to the coronavirus, community groups also are battling increased fears about the Trump administration's efforts to identify undocumented immigrants.


Trump's unsuccessful effort to include a question about citizenship on this year's census already increased suspicions in many neighborhoods.

"This is a bit of a double whammy," said Anita Banerji, director of the Democracy Initiative at Forefront, a Chicago non-profit hired by the city to coordinate community groups. "You have citizen question concern on top of a health concern."

The original plan for last week's canvass was for 2,100 volunteers to descend on 14 communities that recorded low participation numbers during the last census in 2010. A dozen of those were deemed the very hardest to count. Each community was either majority black or Latino.

The targeted neighborhoods on the South and Southwest sides included Washington Park, Englewood, West Englewood, New City, Fuller Park and South Chicago; on the West Side they included West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park, North Lawndale, South Lawndale, Lower West Side and Humboldt Park. Those community areas were picked because they had the worst participation in the city in 2010. Two other undercounted communities, Chicago Lawn and Logan Square/Hermosa, were also targeted at the request of local organizers, Myers said.

"We're not scrambling but we're definitely trying to run at a very fast pace," the city's Willman said.


Willman said the city is figuring its next steps, which will include public service announcements to emphasize that this year's census will allow, for the first time, responses online and by phone in addition to mail. The problem, she acknowledged, is some residents don't have online access at home.

"We are worried about our folks who do not have access to the internet," Willman said. "We know there is a digital divide. We were depending on kiosks at parks, schools and libraries where people can fill out a census form. Now people are not out and about as much."

Myers said there is no substitute for face-to-face encounters.

"You hear so many messages through social media. But it's important to hear from a person from a reputable organization able to talk to another person who looks like them, and who comes from their community who can explain that it's important to complete the census."

After weeks of warnings about the coronavirus, Myers said, the grassroots efforts to send thousands of volunteers into the community were scrapped on March 12 after only the 30 volunteers signed up.

"As days wore on and things got a little more sketchy we asked 'Are we actually going to be able to do this?' " Myers said.

In addition to the scuttled outreach blitz organized by Chicago Cares, another 32 community groups, coordinating with Forefront, are receiving $700,000 in grants to each develop their own plans to increase census counts. They, too, are sidelined by the coronavirus, their leaders said.


For Lonyea Ellis, resource development associate for Greater Auburn-Gresham Development, her job is particularly hard. Her organization is focused on reaching out to the large senior population in Auburn-Gresham, a neighborhood on the South Side. Senior citizens are among the most vulnerable to coronavirus.

"Our focus is on an aging population, and seniors are encouraged to not have contact with other people right now," Ellis said. "That's really going to have an effect on the outreach." 

Ellis' group already has postponed an awareness promotion and a bus trip for seniors to a Michigan casino on March 25. In addition, volunteers were planning to visit five nearby senior homes, knocking on doors to convince many of the more than a 1,000 elderly area residents to participate in the census. That plan is shelved, as well. 

Ellis said she's hopeful the coronavirus pandemic will be controlled in time for outreach over the following several months. Her group was awarded $15,000 from the city program, she said.

Shobhana Johri Verma, executive director of the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute, began working with community groups and educating residents earlier this year.

Her group held a census workshop with seniors in January and intended to follow with another. Her organization's $25,000 grant expires at the end of June, she said. More work remains to convince residents the census is in their best interest.

"It's a tricky area because we're not only looking at seniors who are not proficient at English, but they also don't have immediate access to the internet," she said. "We're having to redesign the entire outreach strategy. We were focused on direct engagement."

Keywords: Auburn Gresham, Census, Census 2020, Chicago Cares, Corona Virus, COVID-19, GAGADC, seniors

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