The U.S. is leading the world in the number of COVID-19 cases, currently at 122,653, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). For Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the rising number of cases in the city — with 2026 cases and 16 deaths — is a clear signal to postpone the 2020 Census. The mayor argues that there isn’t enough bandwidth to both combat the spread of the coronavirus and have workers going door-to-door educating folks and collecting data.

But there’s one particular group hoping to capitalize on people quarantined indoors: the U.S. Census Bureau. With millions of dollars in federal funding and congressional representation on the line, the Census Bureau hopes more Americans will use this time to take advantage of self-response options and be counted to ensure important resources are allocated to their communities across the country.

Taken every 10 years, the Census is the government’s attempt to count each U.S. resident. The first step is self-response, which is when the U.S. Census Bureau mails forms to homes for residents to fill out themselves. The second step is a series of follow-up field operations, which includes Bureau employees going door-to-door in an attempt to collect data from those who’ve yet to be counted. 

The data is then used to determine the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives and the number of Electoral College votes applied to presidential elections. Census data also determines how congressional districts will be redrawn in 2021, and how $670 billion in annual federal funds will be spent on transit, schools, parks, affordable housing, Medicaid and more. 

Although Illinois and the city of Chicago have dedicated millions of dollars to increase Census participation in what are considered “hard-to-count” areas, the coronavirus spread has created additional obstacles in reaching them. With shelter-in-place orders rumored to continue through April, the urgency of “flattening the curve” may have already eclipsed the importance of the Census.

“Frankly, I think people are focusing on making sure their basic needs are cared for at this point,” says Dr. Doriane Miller, a primary care physician and director of the Center for Community Health and Vitality at the University of Chicago, which hosted a community census event in February. Miller’s research specializes in the intersection of health disparities, race, socioeconomics and education. 

“They’re making sure they’re safe, that their loved ones are safe, that they’re getting food,” Miller continues. “For people who are having challenges in terms of rent, utilities, etcetera, their focus is there.”

The Census Bureau considers Black people a hard-to-reach community. In these communities, residents can be difficult to contact, to interview (if English isn’t their first language), to locate (if they are homeless or displaced by other means) or impossible to persuade to cooperate due to confidentiality concerns. 

Because of this, population miscounts can occur and could result in fewer federal dollars being allocated to these communities in the future. 

This happened in 2010, when the Census Bureau undercounted the African-American and Black immigrant populations by more than 800,000 — compared to white people, who were overcounted. 

On March 20, the Census Bureau announced new measures to protect residents and on-the-ground employees. For now, field operations are suspended until April 1. The bureau’s Mobile Questionnaire Assistance Program, which caters to communities with low response rates, including nursing homes, college dormitories, prisons and the homeless, are suspended until April 30. Additionally, the 2020 Census deadline is now Aug. 14 instead of July 31.

During the 1970 Census, district offices staffed telephone help lines to assist households complete their census questionnaires. On April 13, census clerks began conducting telephone interviews to complete questionnaires that contained missing or incomplete information. When enumerators were unable to obtain the missing information or make contact with a nonrespondent household, telephone interviewers attempted to complete a questionnaire if a phone number was available. As a last resort, when a household could not be enumerated following multiple visits and telephone calls, an enumerator attempted to obtain basic information from a neighbor or building superintendent.

Previous 2020 Census outreach efforts in Chicago included volunteers, community organizers and activist groups canvassing the city’s least-responsive neighborhoods. Now, many of these groups are either scrambling to come up with creative ways to connect with hard-to-reach communities or using mailers and social media campaigns to keep civic focus on the Census Bureau count. Organizations such as the Chicago Urban League, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Center and the Westside Health Authority have been encouraging folks to call their offices for more information as a replacement to face-to-face programming. 

Still, the cloud of the pandemic looms large. 

Albert Fontenot, the Census Bureau’s associate director, Decennial Census Programs, emphasized that the current situation with the coronavirus crisis “underscores the need for census data. 

“Census results are used to inform planning and funding for hospitals, health clinics, emergency preparedness and even school lunch programs,” Fontenot stressed. “Even though many things may seem uncertain at the moment, one thing isn’t: [when it comes to] the 2020 Census this year, it’s important to our nation that everyone responds.”

Chicago is a city that’s been experiencing a Black exodus over the last two decades. The population is projected to drop from 1.2 million to 665,000 by the next U.S. Census in 2030, according to the Urban Institute. Those considered hard to count are concentrated in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods including North Lawndale, Austin, South Shore, Chicago Lawn, West Englewood, Little Village and Humboldt Park. 

Accounting for 1.3 million city residents, or 48% of Chicago’s total population, these neighborhoods are among the city’s most under-resourced. They’ve also seen some of the highest levels of unemployment, along with school and hospital closures, making these residents the most vulnerable. 

It’s this population, though, that’s been traditionally undercounted — dating back to the Three-Fifths Compromise, a tool used to count three out of every five slaves to determine the number of House seats for a state back in 1787. 

A distrust in government, after decades of systemic disinvestment along with racist and classist policies, underlines a handful of reasons for the historically lower response rates from people of color. Skepticism within Chicago’s Black community toward the census, in part, stems from persistent segregation due to gerrymandering and its negative effects on affordable housing, neighborhood economies, urban planning, policing and more. 

“A lot of us are simply not sold on the argument that the census is extremely important to our political viability and community funding,” says Stevie Valles, executive director of Chicago Votes, a civic organization run by young people who listen to trap music and change the world.

Before the stay-at-home order, members of Chicago Votes had been hosting events with partners across college campuses to discuss its efforts around voting and voting rights for those incarcerated, an issue that disproportionately affects Black men. Chicago Votes’ initial plans to bring in a census organizer were scrapped after the COVID-19 outbreak. The organization is hoping to get its programming back onto college campuses soon.

“It often comes up in the conversations related to prison gerrymandering and people in prison having the right to vote,” Valles explained. “People in prison are counted as being a resident of the community in which the prison is located. This means that congressional districts are drawn taking their bodies into account, but they have no voice in the democratic process.”

Valles and Chicago Votes helped pass SB2090 in 2019, legislation that ensures eligible inmates have access to the polls while incarcerated. The legislation also provides voter education and voter registration forms to people in the re-entry process. 

Regarding the Census, Valles and other advocates argue that because those imprisoned are counted in populations of smaller, predominantly white rural counties instead of their residences prior to arrest or where they will live once freed, it distorts representation — which can be taken advantage of for House seats and federal dollars. 

Although prisoners in Illinois can now vote, if they’re not counted in the census as part of their communities, their civic power is nullified.

in preparation for the 1990 Census, a Census Bureau cartographer draws census tracts onto a map. Census Tracts are small, relatively permanent statistical subdivisions of a county or equivalent entity that are updated by local participants prior to each decennial census as part of the Census Bureau’s Participant Statistical Areas Program. The primary purpose of census tracts are to provide a stable set of geographic units for the presentation of statistical data.

In 2020, Illinois is at risk of losing at least one seat in the House and, according to a Chicago Magazine analysis, the city faces the possibility of having to choose between maintaining three primarily Black districts (1st, 2nd, and 7th) and one Latinx district (4th), or re-drawing two of each. Results of the 2010 Census showed the Latinx population grew by slightly more than 25,000 as Black people left Chicago, which puts them on track to outnumber Black Chicagoans after the 2020 Census.

Although the Voting Rights Act protects minorities in the redistricting process, ensuring that they have an equal chance of representing their population in office, there’s still a possibility that Black Chicagoans could lose representation and voting ground on issues important to their communities.

“The political ramifications of being undercounted are real,” Valles says. “Maps for political representation are drawn using the census data. The Black community must be counted to ensure Black political representation continues to exist.”

When Chicago went under a “stay-at-home” order on March 21, public libraries closed their doors shortly after. According to past census data, libraries provide internet access to about 12% of households living in hard-to-count communities without an internet subscription or dial-up connection. Library closures will expose the “Digital Divide,” or a gap in access to digital technology as it pertains to race and economics.

As of March 27, about a quarter of the population in each of Chicago’s majority-Black congressional districts — the 1st, 2nd and 7th — had participated in the Census self-response. As of today, about 24% of Chicagoans have been counted, according to the Census Bureau’s self-response map. Earlier this year, Lightfoot said her goal for Chicago is a 75% response rate.

Agreeing with Census Bureau officials and community advocates alike, the Center for Community Health and Vitality’s Dr. Miller encourages folks to reach out to their personal networks to assist with ensuring everyone’s counted. 

“It’s important we get the correct information out to our communities,” she says. “People are saying, if you have contact with people in your community, help getting them to fill out the form. In some neighborhoods, there’s a fear of having somebody knock on your door. Remind them they can avoid having someone knock on their front door by answering the Census information that comes to them in the mail, or by phone or online.”

Headshot of Jessi Roti
is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.