(TNS) — Working at food pantries in Chicago this summer, 17-year-old Lizbeth Vidal walked up and down lines of families, trying to get them counted for the 2020 census.
It was not an easy job, even though many of the people she approached came from some of the neediest neighborhoods in Chicago and stood to lose the most if not counted for a census that will determine billions of dollars in federal resources for the next 10 years.
One day, she stood next to a family of 13 as they waited at a pantry, chatting with them all the way to the end when they finally agreed to complete a census questionnaire. She is constantly telling people how filling out the form will make their parks, libraries and schools better for their children.
“A lot of us are learning from home and … that money is going to be helpful for us,” Vidal told residents near her home in West Englewood. “I know not everyone has computers. ... That’s the way we get computers, books.” Still, response rates remain low in many areas across the South and West sides, with some neighborhoods reporting rates around 30 percent. The same areas have poverty rates of 30 percent and 40 percent, according to data gathered by the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“The reason people are hard to count is because they don’t trust the system,” said state Rep. La Shawn Ford, who has been involved in census efforts on the West Side. “People don’t believe they should participate because our communities suffer, and they believe they are never going to spend the money on our neighborhoods anyways.”
The pandemic put up new barriers. The original deadline of July 31 was extended to Oct. 31 because it was harder to reach homes or gather people for events. The Trump administration abruptly moved up the deadline to Sept. 30, but a federal judge has ruled the deadline should remain the end of this month to guarantee an accurate count.
Groups like Increase the Peace, where Vidal works as a youth organizer, determined one of the best ways to get their neighborhoods counted was to set up food pantries, with census outreach workers on hand to help residents complete census forms.
Working in communities with large undocumented populations, Vidal said the first hurdle was often explaining that people who were not U.S citizens should still fill out the census. Vidal said there were times when she ran into families who did not know what the census was.
Many of the people she has approached have been through a difficult year, losing jobs and living in neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of disinvestment. They doubted filling out a form would finally change the places where they live.
But Vidal said that once she is able to connect with families and discuss their needs, they are often willing to fill out the forms. Vidal found it can come down to issues as simple as funding for new roads “because I know most of them complain about the potholes,” she said.
The Data Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that most of the undercounted areas in the city have high unemployment rates.
In one census tract in the Englewood neighborhood, self-response rates stand around 26 percent, the lowest in the city. The tract is facing an unemployment rate close to 40 percent, with more than 30 percent living below the poverty level, according to UIC’s “Map the Count” project.
Back of the Yards and Lawndale also report some of the highest percentages of unemployment and lowest rates of census responses.
UIC also found that many of the undercounted areas have a large proportion of residents who did not finish high school and therefore have more limited opportunities.
In the Little Village neighborhood, nearly 60 percent of residents in some census tracts did not have a high school diploma, UIC found. The census response rates are just under 40 percent there.
Regan Sonnabend, census director at the YWCA, said she uses schools in her argument for why people should be counted.
The YWCA was tasked with aiding census outreach in Englewood, West Englewood, New City and Pilsen. Sonnabend said neighborhood schools in all those areas are woefully underfunded and many have been shut down.
Sonnabend also mentioned funding for mental health programs, which she believes is “largely overlooked” in the discussion of the 2020 count but crucial to improving the lives of the residents they serve.
She noted that funds spent on COVID-19 efforts in Chicago were directly tied to the 2010 census data. Census information is also used to determine things like new CTA stops, which Sonnabend said can have huge impacts on employment and public health.
UCAN, a community organization based across the South and West sides, focuses on providing clinical and counseling services, as well as transitional and independent living programs for at-risk youth. But this year, it helped with census outreach, subcontracting with the YWCA.
As advocacy workers and community leaders reached out, they found most residents had other issues on their minds.
“When COVID hit ... communities of color saw huge numbers of positive cases and yet again we saw unemployment and yet again we saw the inequities in our education and in our health system,” Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya said during a recent outreach event.
Anaya’s district covers parts of Little Village, Brighton Park and Back of the Yards that have some of the city’s lower self-response rates. Like Ford, she said it became almost impossible for people to see how a 5-to-10-minute questionnaire could have any impact.
Ford said he has been involved in census outreach in Austin, Lawndale, Garfield Park and Roseland, where the distrust of the federal government is high. “They don’t really want to have anything to do with the census,” he said. “People may not want to participate because they feel that the system did them wrong to begin with.”
Felipe Mayviewstein, 29, said he lives in an apartment in Back of the Yards owned by his family and he hasn’t filled out the census.
“I’ve been very occupied, it’s not on my list of priorities,” he said. “It’s obviously important, it’s a very significant thing in terms to its relationship to the economy and country as a whole, but from a merely personal level, I feel like if one person doesn’t fill it out, it doesn’t make a significant difference.”
Mayviewstein is one of many who have a difficult time understanding the individual impact the census has on Chicago’s largest underreported communities.
Ford spoke specifically of Austin, Lawndale, Garfield Park and Roseland neighborhoods and the growing mistrust in government throughout those communities.
“They don’t really want to have anything to do with the census, people may not want to participate because they feel that the system did them wrong to begin with,” he said.
It’s not clear how much more time census outreach workers have. While a federal judge has ruled the deadline is the end of this month, the Trump administration has said it will appeal.
Many community organizations like UCAN have run out of initial funding set aside for census work. UCAN workers are now doing what they can to combine census and voter outreach efforts in this final month.
Kim Casey, an officer with UCAN, said she found many people in the community weren’t aware of the census. She worries what that could mean for the upcoming election.
“People were just not aware,” she said. “Also people weren’t hearing that it’s time to vote again, so I was a little bit concerned about the census and the vote. … Information just wasn’t reaching our people.”
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