Counting Illinois: Much is at Stake When the Federal Government Takes its Census of Americans

May 1, 2009

The U.S. Census Bureau has hired staff to conduct address canvassing in preparation for the 2010 count.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
A discussion about the federal census, the once-a-decade head count scheduled for April 1, 2010, drew nearly 200 people to an auditorium on Chicago’s south side this March, more than a year before the formal tally takes place.

The crowd that filled the Illinois Institute of Technology’s campus near the Bronzeville neighborhood was a mix of civic leaders, federal officials, ministers, entrepreneurs and job seekers.

The event organizers said they wanted to encourage the public ­— and especially African-Americans and Hispanics — to participate in the census, despite widespread distrust of government in those communities. The organizers also found that most of the attendees didn’t appreciate how big an effect the census has on who represents them in government and how much money their communities could receive.

“People don’t know what the census represents. … When people hear that information, it’s like hearing it for the first time,” says Rael Jackson, one of the organizers.

The census’ main role, prescribed by the U.S. Constitution, is to determine how many seats in the U.S. House of Representatives each state receives. Over time, though, it’s taken on far greater importance. The census serves as the basis for rebalancing power at nearly every level of government, distributing federal and state taxpayer money and even helping businesses decide where to build new stores or factories.

Educating the public, especially what the U.S. Census Bureau calls the “hard-to-count” populations, will be a major obstacle in the way of a successful 2010 census. But it’s far from the only one. And there’s plenty for Illinois hanging in the balance.

At stake are power and money. Lots of power and lots of money. 

Illinois could lose yet another seat in the U.S. House, giving the state 18 members in the 435-member chamber, down from a peak of 27 before the 1940 census. Illinois lost one House seat after the 2000 census and two after both of the previous counts. The loss would be exacerbated by the fact that other Midwestern states and other manufacturing states are also expected to lose clout on Capitol Hill.

The rebalancing of power doesn’t stop in Washington, D.C. The state House and Senate, county boards and city councils all must adjust to the new census counts with new district maps, a process that inevitably creates winners and losers at every level.

If that weren’t enough, more than $377 billion of the money the federal government sends to states and cities every year depends on formulas that use census data. Money for everything from Medicaid to highway funding depends on the population counts and other information from the census.

One report to Congress estimated that the biggest counties in the country would lose $3.6 billion in federal funds over a decade — or $2,913 for every missed person — because of undercounts in the 2000 census. Cook County alone lost out on $193 million. 

And next year’s count could hardly come at a worse time. 

The economy, a growing population and shifting attitudes toward government since the September 2001 terrorist attacks make the census harder. 
 

(Click to Enlarge) Map of the hardest-to-count areas of Illinois
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Also, the Census Bureau normally relies on states, localities and nonprofit groups to explain the process to the public and encourage residents to participate. But all of those partners are strapped for cash — indeed, many are laying people off as revenues plummet — and may not be able to help out as much as usual. 

Meanwhile, the actual task of counting people also becomes more difficult because of the downturn, especially due to the housing crisis that precipitated the economic collapse. Census-takers must go block-by-block to determine which housing units are inhabited, a task made more difficult when so many foreclosed homes are abandoned and families move in with one another.

Events in Washington, D.C., also have added to the difficulties. Congressional investigators last year called the census a “high-risk area” and repeatedly criticized the Census Bureau under President George W. Bush’s administration for not obtaining enough money, falling behind schedule and bungling key contracts. 

Even with an influx of cash from the federal stimulus package, the agency was left in limbo for months as President Barack Obama struggled to find a secretary for the Department of Commerce and then a census director. He eventually settled on former Washington state Gov. Gary Locke as Commerce secretary and University of Michigan professor Robert Groves as head of the Census Bureau.

The result is that the Census Bureau has struggled to meet its goals. It had to ditch plans, for example, for census-takers to use handheld computers to record data during in-person interviews with people who don’t return their forms, a move that is expected to add $3 billion to the cost. With a price tag of $14 billion to $15 billion, the 2010 count is expected to be the most expensive census ever.

Still, the process of counting every man, woman and child in the United States has already started.

After updating its maps last year, teams of census employees are now fanning out through neighborhoods to register the addresses of residences. They’ll note changes, such as a building of condos where a single-family house stood 10 years ago, to try to ensure that all households receive a questionnaire.

In January 2010, the Census Bureau plans to launch an advertising campaign to encourage people to mail in surveys they’ll start to receive in March.

In 2010, unlike in past censuses, all households will receive a “short form” that’s supposed to take only 10 minutes to fill out. The six-question short form sticks to basic facts, such as a respondent’s age, gender, Hispanic origin, race, relationship to the head of the household and whether residents own their homes.

The Census Bureau has eliminated the “long form” that it previously sent to one of every six households. The more exhaustive form was used to find out more details, such as income, education and health care coverage. Now, though, the Census Bureau gathers that data through a separate effort called the American Community Survey, which is sent to 3 million households every year.

To get a complete count, the Census Bureau will send employees to households that don’t return their mail-in forms, a far more expensive prospect. 

Chances are, the bureau will have to follow up with a lot of households. 

Over the last few decades, Americans have grown worse at returning census forms, despite massive increases in the amount of money the federal government has spent to encourage them to do so. 

Robert Goldenkoff, the director for strategic issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’ investigative arm, notes that in 1970, the federal government spent $14 (in 2010 dollars) to count each household, and 78 percent of households mailed in their forms. Next year, the Census Bureau will spend roughly $100 per household, and it only expects 64 percent of households to return their surveys.

“The Census Bureau is spending more money and basically accomplishing the same results,” Goldenkoff says.

Minorities are far less likely to return their forms than whites.

That’s why so many groups are focusing their efforts on trying to persuade African-Americans and Hispanics, especially, to participate in the survey.

The event at IIT, for example, was organized by Real Men Cook, a nationwide organization that promotes the importance of men in their families, particularly in the African-American community. Jackson, a vice president for the group, worked with Yvette Moyo, Real Men Cook’s founder, to put on the gathering.

Jackson worries that African-Americans who distrust the government — especially men — might not participate in the census. He says many have had run-ins with the criminal justice system, and others may worry about jeopardizing federal benefits, such as food stamps for the women they live with if the federal government discovered the men were living there, too.

Moyo says Real Men Cook can do outreach during its events, such as its annual Father’s Day barbecue, to dispel myths and tell people about the benefits of participating in the census. She says the idea that funding for communities depends on residents’ participation is an especially strong selling point.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) is working with the Census Bureau on a national campaign urging Latinos to take part. The effort, dubbed “Ya es hora. ¡Hagase contar!” (It’s time. Make yourself count!) hopes to correct the estimated 3 percent undercount of Latinos in the 2000 census, which NALEO says left 1 million Latinos uncounted.

The Latino group worries that many in the Hispanic community distrust all parts of the federal government after several high-profile immigration raids in the past three years. Other factors, such as high mobility rates and large families, could also complicate the counting of Latinos.

The Spanish-language TV network Univision is joining several Latino advocacy groups and the Service Employees International Union in the effort, which is similar to drives in recent years to encourage Latinos to become naturalized citizens and to vote in the 2008 elections.

Arturo Vargas, NALEO’s executive director, says he’d like to arrange a half-hour TV show on a Spanish-language network that would help Spanish speakers fill out the forms. 

Next year, the Census Bureau will mail forms in both English and Spanish to 13 million households, although there are worries they won’t be sufficient for the 34 million U.S. residents who the census estimates speak Spanish.

Plus, the Census Bureau is also making a special effort to hire census-takers who know both the language and customs of the areas where they’ll be going door to door. It is encouraging governments and other groups to start Complete Count Committees to coordinate outreach efforts. And its January advertising blitz will be tailored to reach different pockets of the population.

Illinois groups that are ramping up census outreach programs are also focusing on the black, Hispanic and other hard-to-count populations.

Not only are the hard-to-count populations the most difficult to contact, but they are often also the ones who would benefit most from being fully accounted for, explains Mary Schaafsma, project manager for the census and redistricting for the League of Women Voters of Illinois. 

In one outreach effort, the league hopes to teach high school students about the importance of the census, so they, in turn, will encourage their parents to take part. Schaafsma says the group plans to work with other grassroots organizations to encourage efforts in churches and libraries.

That’s the type of work the Joyce Foundation and nine other regional philanthropies want to encourage through a joint effort announced in April to spend $1 million on promoting census outreach efforts.

“So far as we know… this appears to be the nation’s largest investment to date in the 2010 census effort in any single state,” says Lawrence Hansen, vice president of the Joyce Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that focuses its work on the Great Lakes region. (Hansen is also chairman of Illinois Issues’ advisory board.)

Promoting the census isn’t one of the central focuses of the Joyce Foundation, Hansen says, but the census’ outcomes affect all of the policy areas Joyce regularly weighs in on, such as workforce training, education reform and environmental issues.

Hansen is making a similar pitch to the leaders of philanthropies in other Midwestern states, including Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

The Land of Lincoln likely will lose a U.S. House seat after next year’s census, according to a December analysis by the Washington, D.C.,-area firm Election Data Services. But Illinois would have plenty of company in the Midwest. Also expected to lose a House seat are Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri. Ohio could lose two.

Other industrialized states in the Northeast — Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — also likely will forfeit a seat. 

Many of the states expected to make gains in the next census are the same ones hit hardest by the housing crisis that touched off the current recession. Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada far outpace the rest of the nation in foreclosure rates; all but California are expected to gain House seats. Arizona and Florida may be in line for two. Texas would by far be the biggest winner, with a projected gain of four seats.

That makes the situation tighter than it’s been for at least the last 30 years, says Kimball Brace, Election Data Services’ founder, who has worked with both the Illinois Democratic Party and the State Board of Elections on redistricting-related tasks.

Under his latest projections, Oregon would gain a sixth seat by just two people. California would lose a seat by 18 people.

How well the census is taken in Illinois could mean the difference between whether the state loses or keeps a seat, says Brace, a member of the Commerce Department’s 2010 Census Advisory Committee. 

“My advice to people in Illinois is to be more focused on this and make sure the census count is done properly and done completely. In your instance, a seat may well be on the tipping edge.”

Daniel C. Vock is a reporter for Washington, D.C.-based Stateline.org.

Illinois Issues, May 2009