(TNS) — In January, the Rockford, Ill., Region 1 Planning Council held a news conference to announce plans to be face to face with residents to ensure every person understood the importance of being counted by the 2020 census.
Then the coronavirus pandemic took hold, and every event meant to encourage census participation was either canceled or postponed.
Now, government officials in the region and the state are worried that the effects of the pandemic will result in less participation in the census. At stake is nearly $1,535 per person per year in federal funding for any Winnebago County resident who goes uncounted. Illinois could lose $195 million a year in federal funds for every 1 percent undercounted, Gov. JB Pritzker says.
Programs like Medicaid, foster care, Pell Grants, SNAP, highway construction funding, Section 8, and the free and reduced-price lunch and breakfast program would all be at risk without a timely and accurate count.
Pritzker opened his daily news conference on Wednesday, which was National Census Day, by stressing the need for people to stay at home and participate in the census online, by mail or by phone.
"The census is far more than just a survey," he said. "It will determine how much of your tax dollars we get back from the federal government and it will help decide how much power Illinois will have in terms of congressional representation and Electoral College votes for the next decade."
The state is redirecting its $29 million in census outreach spending to social media and expanded phone banking, texting and virtual assistance programs.
The planning council initially planned to host events to raise awareness and discuss the importance of participation in the census. The stay-at-home order has forced the group to adjust.
"Oh my gosh, it has been a really radical change," said Region 1 Planning Council program manager Ivy Hood. "The best way to communicate with somebody is usually to have a conversation with them, get out there and meet them where they are. This has forced us to entirely, almost exclusively, turn our operations online. And nearly everybody is working remotely."
Instead of events like town halls and open forums, the planning council and government officials have shifted their marketing focus and money to television campaigns, digital billboards and radio and social media advertising.
"We're going to be moving some dollars that we would have been spending on some of the forums and town halls and we're probably going to be upping our media buys," said Wester Wuori, chief of staff for the city of Rockford. "We're going to hope to allocate some additional spending now that we would have spent on public events and move those into electronic and other media."
Social media was a primary marketing tool for the planning council. On Thursday, Hood, state Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, and Mustafa Abdall, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Lincoln Middle School, hosted a Facebook live event on West's Facebook page to educate residents on the importance of filling out the census.
Last week, the U.S Census Bureau announced the deadline for self-response would be extended from July 31 to Aug. 14 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the extension, Hood says that an inaccurate count is inevitable.
"It would be optimistic to suggest that we might only have a small impact. I think the COVID-19 will really impact the results that we see come back," Hood said.
Enumerators typically would go door to door to follow up with residents who have not yet completed the census. As of right now, the U.S Census has postponed the canvass by at least two weeks.
However, an increase in participation is also possible. This is the first year that the census has been made available online, which makes it more accessible than previously. Go to my2020census.gov to complete the questionnaire online.
Wuori timed himself taking the online census and it took him only six minutes to complete, consistent with census promotions saying that the online version takes less than 10 minutes.
"We all spend far more time checking out what we're going to watch on Netflix or purchasing something from Amazon," Wuori said. "So it's really simple. It's formulated for whether you're getting on it by computer, by smartphone, on your tablet. It just automatically adjusts to whatever device you are using. And it is super simple."
©2020 Rockford Register Star, Ill. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.