Credit: Martin Sanchez / Unsplash

Census self-response opened on March 12. The next day, “we were in the full throttles of the health pandemic,” Anita Banerji of Forefront, a civic organization that coordinates grantmakers and community nonprofits, recounts. 

On the 13th, Illinois Governor Pritzker announced statewide school closures through the end of the month, casinos and churches alike shuttered, and the Circuit Court of Cook County declared a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

Self-response is the first phase of census survey completion, in which households mail back their own census forms or voluntarily complete the census by phone or e-mail. The census bureau then attempts to count all remaining households through a round of in-person outreach following the self-response deadline. During this period, there is a risk and fear that many may be miscounted or missed altogether.

Lili Scales, advocacy director at CHANGE Illinois, had been coordinating a series of census ads with the Illinois Farm Bureau to air on radio when the city started to shut down. “But what is their reach going to be now?” Scales asks. “People aren’t, you know, listening to the radio on their way to work. There are census ads on Michigan and Monroe and State and Monroe, but no one’s out. How do you see that?”

At Pilsen’s Mujeres Latinas en Acción, plans for census outreach were well underway when the virus hit: weekly education efforts that regularly reached hundreds at the Mexican consulate, Saturday morning canvassing trips where promotoras (census outreach workers) and volunteers regularly knocked on over 700 doors in a single morning, and one-on-one conversations with community members. These have all been put on hold indefinitely. 

“We are still receiving a positive response through phone banking, but the lack of direct contact and communication makes it challenging to truly connect,” explains Monica Paulson, advocacy manager at Mujeres Latinas en Acción. “In the last week we’ve made over 1,400 calls.” 

Rather than putting census efforts on hold as the city shuts down, community organizations are doubling down as some residents plan to spend the next few weeks socially distanced in their homes and many of the city’s most vulnerable man the front lines of coronavirus transmission as delivery drivers, warehouse workers, or grocery employees. For many, this moment adds a new sense of urgency to the census issue.

“There are a lot of organizations that are working double, triple time to make sure that we get an accurate count,” says Inhe Choi, executive director of the HANA Center. “We see in the news how, as a state, we’re not receiving even a percentage of materials that we’ve been asking for from the federal government for COVID. And so this is so, so important.” Because this count will not truly be over until the end of this calendar year, current relief efforts will not be impacted by the upcoming census count. But Choi is thinking ahead. “This information will affect us in the next epidemic or pandemic, our disaster response in the next ten years. It just feels extra heightened now, more than it ever has been.”

According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, even a 1 percent undercount would result in the state losing $35 million in federal funding for critical public services like roads, hospitals, schools, and fire stations.

Disaster response in the decades to come isn’t the only thing that could potentially be significantly impacted by a lower response rate on the 2020 census. So could our representation in Congress. Illinois is one of four states which has seen its population decline since the 2010 census and is one of ten states that is projected to lose at least one seat in congressional representation as a result of the 2020 census. “And if we don’t bring it, if we don’t get all of our historically undercounted populations counted in the next few months, there’s a very real fear that we could lose that second seat and the federal dollars we rely on,” says Banerji.

Illinois is currently ranked ninth in the country for census self-response, with more than 37.6 percent of our households counted. But Cook County has a lower rate of response than nearly all other counties in Illinois, rivaled only by a few tracts on the southern and western edges of the state. As of March 31, 32.6 percent of Cook County residents had sent in their self-responses by mail, phone, or online, as compared to the 66.1 percent final self-response rate in Cook County in 2010. 

In response to the spread of the coronavirus, the United States Census Bureau has extended the self-response period by 14 days, to August 14, and has modified and delayed many of its planned survey efforts, as well as suspended all field operations until at least April 1. 

Organizations aren’t taking for granted that the census bureau’s measures will be enough to get out the count in and of themselves.

“We’re working to ensure there are flyers, palm cards, and materials at grocery stores, community centers, clinics, and other essential locations that are likely to remain open,” says Patrick Laughlin from the Illinois Department of Human Services. “And with so many residents staying at home to slow the spread of COVID-19, people are online more than ever. We are launching a robust marketing and messaging campaign on social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and running commercials on in-home streaming networks to reach hard-to-count populations at home.”

Others like Forefront and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council are also choosing to distribute literature in lieu of face-to-face contact and are turning to virtual public forums like Facebook Live, digital town halls, and webinars. “There are a lot of people that are watching TV more now than they ever have before. So how do we get national ads? How do we get local ads onto streaming sites? How do we do more videos that we can share with our family and friends via texting?” asks Banerji. 

At Mujeres Latinas en Acción, census promotoras are starting at home, calling their friends and family to spread the word about the census; the organization’s direct service staff manning the organization’s hotline and providing telecounseling to community members are also encouraging callers to fill out the census.

But having these conversations can be hard when members of Chicago’s hard-to-count communities have already been thrust into instability as the virus spreads, with many non-census concerns on their mind. Korean Americans served by the HANA Center have been impacted by the coronavirus already, as many work cash-based jobs, are losing cleaning shifts, or are working overtime at grocers. “We can call to then just remind them that organizations like United Way and the Chicago Community Trust are providing us with relief funds for our communities, then remind them about the census. But it’s hard to push them in this moment, you know, when they are worried about day-to-day,” says Choi.

But she feels the HANA Center is positioned well to reach those who are least likely to be counted because of its dual role as a social service provider and community organizing nonprofit. This allowed them to utilize years of acquired organizing strategies, a robust infrastructure of organizers and a volunteer base, and multiple levels of leadership to quickly organize a phone bank when door-to-door canvassing became infeasible.

So far, the center has had success phone banking, where engagement has far surpassed the usual cold-call conversation rate of 6–7 percent, doubling and tripling to reach closer to 20–21 percent. “The conversation rate that we’ve been having over the phone has been on par or higher than what we’ve been having when we were engaging with people through the door,” says Yujin Maeng, civic engagement and data manager at the HANA Center. “And our phone banking conversations go longer, from my own experience talking to community members about the census. I definitely think part of it is that people are engaging specifically with those they have already identified as the trusted messenger.”

Phone banking volunteers have also increased, as callers may have more flexibility with their own time as employers turn to work-from-home arrangements. The fact that callers can canvass from the comfort of their homes rather than having to travel to distant areas to knock on doors in the cold doesn’t hurt either. Many volunteers feel calling about the census helps them feel proactive in the face of ever-increasing uncertainty about the future and the inaccessibility of many other volunteer opportunities in times of social distancing.

The new reality could also unexpectedly benefit census response as younger people are home from school and college and can help family members for whom English is a second language or understanding of the census is low to fill out the survey. 

But virtual communication can’t supplant every instance of in-person gathering. Many organizations had planned to bring news of the census to church services or use libraries as a way to promote online census completion to Chicago residents who do not have access to WiFi, computers, and the Internet in their homes. That won’t be possible anymore. As a result, neighborhoods in which households don’t have broadband access like West Englewood, Riverdale, Auburn Gresham, and South Shore could be uniquely at risk of an undercount this year.

Additionally, many organizations working with vulnerable populations, like those experiencing homelessness, are already working overtime to provide their constituents with basic services in response to the virus and have little time or manpower left over to devote to census outreach.

“I think the assumption is people are home and people don’t have anything to do, so it’s a good time to call them and it’s a good time for them to fill out the census. I think that is a tricky assumption because it relies on if they’re able to work from home, are they essential, nonessential workers?” explains Scales.

Even for those at home, it may not be possible to set the time aside to fill out the census when taking care of children who are home due to school cancellations, trying to keep food on the table while practicing social distancing, and adjusting to a new onslaught of webinars and conference calls throughout the day.

Banerji is hopeful that people of all backgrounds can come together to fill out the survey. “This is the one issue in Illinois that we rise and fall together as a state,” she says. “For many of us, it is hard to look past today. But we need to look to tomorrow.”   v

This story was made possible by a grant from the McCormick Foundation administered by Public Narrative.