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 in 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. J.B. 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.
Organizers agree that challenges are compounded in “hard-to-count” communities.
Populations and geographies deemed “Hard to Count” by the U.S. Census Bureau are areas where the self-response rate in the 2010 census was 73 percent or less. Populations that have been historically undercounted include young children, immigrants, low-income households, people of color and rural residents.
Alvarez said the Illinois model puts nonprofit and other community organizations at the center of outreach in these communities.
“It’s important to have them become the trusted messengers,” he said, noting that nonprofits are often already making day-to-day contact with some of the hardest-to-count communities.
Education is key in the effort, organizers said, as residents need to know what they stand to lose in an undercount, what questions will or will not be on the form, and that their privacy is protected.
But strict social distancing guidelines have made that process more difficult for many local organizers.
Lynden Schuyler, director of southern Illinois census outreach through the Illinois Public Health Association, works in Illinois’ southernmost 20 counties. She said the pandemic has made hard-to-count communities “even harder” in her territory, where four counties have between 28 and 51 percent of households that lack internet access.
“There are pockets where thousands and thousands and thousands of people don’t have access to internet services,” she said, later adding, “There’s a lot of migrant population down there. I think every single one of the hard-to-count communities is there in an abundance.”
She said many people are waiting for hand-delivered census forms, especially in rural areas that have only P.O. boxes which do not receive the forms. The hand delivery effort has been postponed, however, and is tentatively scheduled to start again on June 13 in the region.
“You have a good majority that are still waiting on that folder,” Schuyler said. “And in Hardin County, for example, you’re talking 98 percent of those people don’t even have their census invitation yet. So they’re going to explode when that finally gets to them.”
Hand delivery entails only slipping the census forms into one’s mailbox or onto a door handle, meaning it is different than door-knocking efforts which require in-person contact and won’t begin again until at least August, depending on the region.
Banerji said the lack of “touchpoints,” or in-person contact, in minority communities in the Chicago area is creating problems as well.
“Our outreach efforts have been incredibly stymied by the pandemic,” she said. “And we need to make sure that people’s priorities are health and safety first.”
Unsurprisingly, social media has been important to getting the word out as organizations creatively adapt to new realities.
Banerji said one organization she worked with had not used Twitter much, but realized its power when participating in a coordinated regional outreach “thunderclap” event where several organizations posted to several social media platform at a coordinated date and time to promote the census.
“So we’ve never utilized social media like this before,” she said. “And to know that it is helping people get counted while they’re home, has helped us with our outreach efforts while we’re all staying at home.”
Organizations have also partnered with new entities to expand internet accessibility and hotspots, she said, and they’ve launched promotion efforts through grocery stores and food banks among others.
In Schuyler’s territory, efforts also include billboards, distributing signage in yards and at grocery stores and other creative efforts. One of her sub-groups launched a “boredom busters” drive-thru where organizers handed bags of coloring books, other activities and census literature to parents while maintaining social distancing.
Groups also promoted social media “dance parties” and other shared virtual activities.
“We’re encouraging parents to do videos about how they and the kids are doing the census and just post them on Facebook somewhere – encouraging people to try to do things together without being together,” she said.
Alvarez said the census office is also partnering with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to “engage the business community to promote the 2020 census.”
That includes marketing and media campaigns as well as working with essential businesses that are open during the pandemic, such as grocery stores in hard-to-count neighborhoods, to distribute posters and canvas tote bags and potentially launch advertising campaigns.
DCEO is also looking at ways target materials to gig workers and work with chambers of commerce to designate a day for workers to take 10 minutes off to complete the census once pandemic restrictions are loosened.
“I would say this is where creativity is really taking flight amongst certain organizations, and encouraging other organizations to think about doing their work differently,” Banerji said. “And because we do have more months added to self-response, it’s an opportunity to think about more of these concerted outreach efforts, but I will tell you that it’s an incredible challenge.”
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.”