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Counting Cautiously: The 2020 Census And COVID-19

Claire Buchanan

This year’s Census is in full swing. Characterized by a pandemic and digital response options, it’s an authentically 2020 experience.

With congressional seats and hundreds of billions of dollars on the line, states and municipalities across the country are pushing to get all their residents counted. Cities and community organizations in northern Illinois had planned in-person events to promote the count, answer questions, and help residents fill out the questionnaire. But those are all on hold now while Illinoisans shelter in place during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Jason Blumenthal, Management Analyst for the City of DeKalb, explained the City cares about getting each and every resident counted. At stake is around $1,500 per uncounted person per year.

He said, “Some people are like, ‘Oh, $1500, a couple people, that’s not that big of a deal.” He continued, “Well, you know if you think about it, we lose 1,000 people, multiply that by 1500, we’re in real money. We’re talking about very real money.”

So, how are they getting the word out while everyone is social distancing?

Most are leveraging online tools. They’re promoting participation on social media and apps, like WhatsApp and Twitter. And they’re reminding people the form is available online. People can even fill it out on their smartphones. Blumenthal said he’s confident that will help ensure a full count despite the social distancing.

And some residents have questions and concerns about the Census. Araceli Lopez Zavala with Parent University in DeKalb said undocumented community members especially may have safety concerns about filling it out. But Census answers are kept confidential, and there is no citizenship question on this year’s form. Parent University held a Q & A session with city and census representatives, and their next face-to-face event would have had attendees fill out the census together. That event is canceled, but PU is still using online meetings to reassure people and answer questions. Lopez Zavala said the count allows PU members to have a voice in the funding of services they use.

“It is our mission to empower our community. And if they feel that they count, regardless of their status, that’s a civil service that they’re doing.”

Aaron Carlin with the Rockford Public Library system said most of the Census related work they were doing was face-to-face. They had been helping people use library computers to fill out the form, and hosting hiring events with Census Bureau officials, where residents could come and apply for Census jobs. They plan to resume those services when the stay-at-home order is lifted and staff and patrons can safely return to the library.

"Libraries across the country and the world always have people who are so excited to help people and make a difference and connect those people to information sources,” he said, “and that's what this is going to be like. There's going to be a lot of joy going back to work and connecting people again."

How is Illinois doing?

As of mid-April, Illinois is doing a little better than the national average when it comes to Census participation. Slightly more than half of households in the state have responded, compared to a national response rate of about 49%. But that still means many Illinoisans have yet to be counted. Wester Wuori, Chief of Staff for the City of Rockford and Chair of the Regional Complete Count Committee, added, "When we don't count everybody we lose out on the funding, but we still have to provide the services." Up-to-date response rates can be found on the Census Bureau website.

Now what?

The Census Bureau has extended the self-report period as well as the amount of time enumerators will be in the field. They can’t go out and talk with residents in person quite yet. But you can still expect a knock on your door later this year if you haven’t filled out the Census questionnaire.

You can fill out the Census online, by phone, or through the mail.