SPRINGFIELD — Like everyone else, Illinois’ census outreach coordinators have had to adapt to a new reality during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As drastic as this change has been for everyone, it’s the same thing for us,” said Marishonta Wilkerson, who was named co-director of newly created state census office last September.
Wilkerson and fellow co-director Oswaldo Alvarez are leading Illinois’ $29 million outreach effort through their office within the Illinois Department of Human Services. Their positions were created by Gov. JB Pritzker’s June executive order aimed at maximizing participation in the decennial head count.
The pair oversees a “hub and spoke” model in which funding passes through IDHS to 31 intermediary organizations that lead outreach efforts in 12 regions of the state. Those organizations partner with other community groups to target outreach at a hyperlocal level.
Thus far, Illinois has hovered in the top 10 for state self-response rate since the census portal opened on April 1. While Wilkerson and Alvarez are pleased with the high ranking, they said there is room to grow the response rate — which was 64.2 percent as of May 13, putting Illinois in eighth place of all states.
While good against the national average of 59.1 percent, the numbers were well below the state’s 2010 final self-reporting tally of 70.5 percent. In 2000, the self-response rate in Illinois was 69 percent. Illinois outpaced the national average of 66.5 percent in 2010 and 67.4 percent in 2000.
There is still plenty of time to push this year’s numbers upward, as the self-response period deadline has been extended to Oct. 31. But for organizers, one difficulty is maintaining momentum as the pandemic puts door-knocking efforts on hold and strict social distancing requirements cancel the planned pizza parties, booths at fairs and local library events while driving outreach online.
Anita Banerji, director of the Democracy Initiative of the nonprofit organization Forefront, agreed that 2020 is presenting challenges both foreseen and unforeseen. Forefront is partnered with the city of Chicago for community-based census outreach as part of the program, and Banerji said they are noticing lagging numbers in minority communities that have not had points of contact with census organizers.
She said one continued challenge is fear of a citizenship question appearing on the official questionnaire. While President Donald Trump advocated for such a question and received widespread media attention, it does not appear on the final form.
“And then everyone also thought that with us going online, that was going to be an issue, but now coupled with the pandemic, there are so many challenges to the 2020 census,” she said.
While respondents can still fill out their census by phone at 844-330-2020 or by mailing back the questionnaires that are delivered to one’s household, the majority of responses this year – nearly 53 percent in Illinois – have been completed online at my2020census.gov. The process generally takes about 10 minutes and can also be completed on mobile devices.
While the pandemic has changed nearly everything about census outreach efforts, one thing remains the same — the consequences of an undercount. Those include a potential loss of local health resources, up to two seats in Congress and other federal funding.
Wilkerson said about $1,500 per year in federal funding is lost for each person not counted in the census, and the numbers shape federal funding for the next 10 years.
Alvarez characterized the census as “the one way we really have to twist the government’s arm to represent you and invest in you.”
“We all win when we’re all counted,” he said.
Some of the hardest-to-count communities Schuyler’s organization serves have the most to lose in an undercount. Those communities are often reliant on local health departments, and a complete count is essential to ensuring they receive adequate funding.
“The census numbers are utilized by the US government to determine the government pass-through funds that go to health and well-being programs like health departments, Medicare, Medicaid, the Head Start programs, all kinds of education programs, Pell Grants, school lunches, senior programs like Meals on Wheels, and the various senior transportation systems,” she said.
An undercount could affect schools, roads, bridges and other public improvements that are at least partially funded by government pass-through funds, she added.
The organizers also agreed the pandemic that has so drastically altered this year’s plans is further evidence that an accurate count is needed.
“Never before has it become more apparent to me that this kind of data is necessary to be collected for emergency crises,” Banerji said. “We need to know where people reside so that resources can be deployed. And without that accurate data, we’re not going to be able to plan for our future, we’re not going to be able to ensure that when our next pandemic hits that we’ve got the necessary information we need.”