How coronavirus is complicating 2020 census push
The Gail Borden Library in Elgin had invited visitors to drive up to the entrance, receive prepackaged pizza, pie and a reminder to fill out their census forms from bilingual staffers wearing gloves.
Even with those precautions, organizers decided to postpone Saturday's drive-through.
In the age of the coronavirus, census campaigns face significant challenges promoting participation in the once-in-a-decade population count as large gatherings are canceled and people may not want to open their doors to field workers.
"The Census Bureau is clearly going to have to heighten and expand its advertising and communication efforts and rely more on local and community-based partners to get the word out, and that's becoming harder as communities start to limit public interaction," says Terri Ann Lowenthal, the former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee.
At the federal level, congressional lawmakers have pressed the U.S. Census Bureau for plans to protect and retain hundreds of thousands of census workers who will go door-to-door to households that haven't filled out the survey through the mail, phone or a new online option.
With so much already at stake in Illinois, census partners trying to reach immigrant families, seniors, people who are homeless and other historically undercounted populations now have to adjust to the unknowns of the virus' path.
"Any disruption to the census plan, which is supposed to unfold like clockwork and is the product of a decade of work, certainly could have disproportionate effects on population groups and communities that already are harder to count accurately," Lowenthal said.
Why census matters
As a result of population declines, Illinois is almost certain to lose one of its 18 U.S. House seats after final census results.
"We are trying to ensure that we don't lose two," said Kathleen Yang-Clayton, a lead researcher for the University of Illinois at Chicago's 2020 Census Program.
Political representation is only part of the equation. Each person missed in the census could cost Illinois $1,400 to $1,800 in federal dollars for schools, roads and social services.
The data also will determine funding for hospitals and clinics, a system of public health providers on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.
"If they're out doing their jobs, the least we can do is fill out our census forms and support them," Yang-Clayton said.
'All hands on deck'
The state is spending $29 million on census efforts, building a network of 21 regional intermediaries that have distributed grants to more than 350 sub-organizations working to increase response rates. Those groups include schools, libraries and social service agencies trying to avoid a repeat of 10 years ago, when the Census Bureau estimates 59,800 people in Illinois were not counted.
UIC is working with regional intermediaries to deliver training on using maps, door knocking and phone banking as organizers confront lack of internet access in hard-to-count areas, government mistrust and lingering fears in immigrant communities after a White House push to ask about citizenship status on the 2020 census. The Supreme Court in June blocked the question.
"That is what is important about this model of outreach, going through your trusted partners, through your trusted organizations, through your local leaders to reinforce the message about the confidentiality of the census," Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights spokesman Brandon Lee said.
One of the coalition's partners is Mano a Mano Family Resource Center in Round Lake Park. Organizers were regrouping over the weekend to prepare for the possibility of a prolonged outbreak.
"Now we're going to have to get creative in how we're going to reach the community," said Sandra Diaz, Mano a Mano's democracy in action program coordinator.
Instead of giving presentations in Lake and McHenry counties, the census team could post digital versions and host livestream videos so people can still ask questions. In place of face-to-face technical assistance, Mano a Mano's census ambassadors can still contact their own social network to offer help.
"If we don't get counted, then people who are making policies, they won't know where our population is or how much need there is to create policies that help immigrants," Diaz said.
In the state's second-largest city, Aurora's complete count committee has sponsored or attended 64 census outreach events from last year through Thursday.
But a monthlong moratorium on community activities at city buildings leaves 26 events in limbo through April 9. Past that, the committee has another dozen or so planned.
Youth Day also has been canceled, a resource fair that would have given the committee an audience of about 500 attendees.
"We were gearing up to get into full speed so to speak, and now we're putting the brakes on things," said Dan Barreiro, Aurora's chief community services officer.
Still, officials are continuing to raise awareness through a water bill stuffer, a citywide newsletter, social media and an "all hands on deck" approach to partner with churches, businesses, schools and community colleges, Barreiro said.
"We really believe that so much of the work that we've done up to this point will still garner very significant benefits for the city," said College of DuPage President Brian Caputo, the committee's chairman.
The Census Bureau is delaying an effort to count students in off-campus housing. That operation in areas around colleges and universities has been pushed back from April 9 to April 23.
Most canvassing of households that haven't completed the questionnaire is scheduled to start May 13. A bureau statement Saturday said it could adjust the July deadline for completing the census if necessary.
"The bureau has some time to take precautions and take other steps to hire sufficient numbers of census takers," said Lowenthal, the census expert. "That could include increasing pay rates, which it's already done in many areas, but it could do so again if it needs to."
The bureau also is encouraging administrators of "group quarters" -- college-run student housing, prisons, nursing homes, group homes -- to choose a way to count their residents that requires less in-person contact with census workers.
With college campuses shutting down for the semester to limit coronavirus risks, how will the Census Bureau get an accurate tally? Students moving to remote learning at home should still be counted where they attend college.
"For every campus, for every facility that's in our group quarters operations, we are going to be reaching out to those areas that are affected and working with them one-on-one to ensure that we count them completely and accurately," bureau spokesman Michael Cook said.
The bureau has reached its goal of recruiting 2.67 million applicants for temporary jobs, Cook said. A projected 500,000 workers are needed for follow-up operations.
"Currently, we don't see any signs of any drop-off in our ability to conduct the work based on the amount of people that we have recruited and the amount of people that we plan to hire for the nonresponse follow-up activities," Cook said.
A contingency budget of $2 billion could allow the bureau to hire additional workers, manage operations from different offices and mail more reminders or questionnaires, Cook said.
The bureau also pledges to adapt should it need to delay or discontinue visits to households in outbreak areas.
What you need to know about the 2020 Census• To fill out census forms online, visit My2020census.gov.
• There are nine questions, and it takes abut 10 minutes to complete.
• Online respondents are encouraged to use the "Census ID" printed on the official 2020 Census letter mailed to their households.
• People also can respond by mail or by phone in English (844-330-2020), Spanish (844-468-2020), Mandarin (844-391-2020), Cantonese (844-398-2020), Vietnamese (844-461-2020), Korean (844-392-2020), Russian (844-417-2020), Arabic (844-416-2020), Tagalog (844-478-2020), Polish (844-479-2020), French (844-494-2020), Haitian Creole (844-477-2020), Portuguese (844-474-2020), Japanese (844-460-2020) and Telephone Display Device (844-467-2020).
• The census bureau urges people who get their invitations before March 20 to respond preferably before April 1.