Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series identifying how local minority organizations picked up the mantle to attempt to increase the Census Bureau count to avoid Chicago losing necessary federal resources and political clout.

The numbers weren’t looking good. The count from Chicago’s Black and Latino communities for the 2020 Census were coming up low, troubling low. And so, the push was on.

Starting in Little Village and Pilsen, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) staged car caravans and then the drive out across the city. They looked for places, where people gathered: food pantries, for example, and helped folks complete the census forms on the spot.

Health promoters for the Gads Hill Center in Pilsen had their hours increased so they could help reassure doubtful Latinos that the community had nothing to lose and everything to gain from being counted for the Census.

As the head of the National Urban’s League census drive in Chicago, Kareem Butler’s message was similar. Getting everyone counted means more political, social and economic power for the Black community.

But skepticism was high. Why trust the government now? Especially with Trump in Power?

Yet despite the offerings of free haircuts, and street corner rallies, the final response rate for the US Census’ 2020 count for Chicago was far less than hoped.

Eager to beat previous low counts, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had designated $2.7 million with the very optimistic goal of reaching 75 percent of the city’s residents. Uber also donated $100,00 to help the effort. But the final rate of those who responded to the census was 60.9 percent, down from 62.4 in 2010. That put Chicago sixth out of the nation’s 10 largest cities.

Across Illinois, majority Black communities had the lowest rate – 54 percent – and Latino communities were not far behind with 58.6 percent counted. Still, Illinois ranked 7th among the nation’s states with a 71.4 percent rate, and was tops among the nation’s most populous states.

Black and Latino communities in Chicago’s South Side and West Side had lower response rates than White communities city-wide. And the rate in some of these communities of color were more than 20 percent below the 2010 results. Overall, Latino communities in the city and suburbs saw the largest decline in their participation in the census, a seven percent drop, as compared to 2010.

The mostly Latino Back of the Yards community had the lowest rate in the city, 38.2 percent and the mostly Black Englewood community was close with 39 percent.

Why do these numbers matter?

They are reliable omens of who were missed in the Census. And when you aren’t counted, you lose out on two basics of American society: politics and money. Consider the swirl of critical changes in Chicago’s racial/ethnic makeup that has been documented by population counts.

As indicated by the 2020 Census, Chicago’s Latinos have surged to 29.8 percent of the population, surpassing the Black community, whose share of city residents fell from 32.4 percent in 2010 to 28.7 in 2020. In 1980, nearly four out of ten Chicago residents were Black.

That reality was reflected in the city council political battle and voting struggle waged earlier this year by Latinos for a greater number council seats, a battle that will most likely continue as the Latino population is expected to grow while the Black community appears likely to constrict.

The council’s Latinos had sought 15 seats, but settled on 14, a boost of only two seats. The political wrangling left 16 Black majority wards and another mostly Black ward – a loss of one ward.

“We distribute political power by population and when that count is bad, it hurts,” said Rob Paral, a veteran demographer in Chicago. Equally important is the fact that flawed population figures are why some don’t get their fair share.

This is because much of federal and state funding is based on headcount alone. Money is meted out according to population and not race or ethnicity and this is money which goes to schools, hospitals, childcare, community and children’s health programs. An undercount that fails to measure poor children, for example, would directly hurt Chicago schools, children and families. In Chicago, where the health of the Black and Latino communities has been turning downward, incomplete population figures would fail to alert the need for help. The life expectancy for Latinos tumbled from 83.1 in 2012 to 75.9 years in 2020, the greatest drop city-wide. Blacks’ life expectancy dropped from 72.6 years to below 70 years, the lowest in decades, according to the city’s Public Health Department.

But some federal programs that are designed, for example, to counter housing or employment discrimination factor in statistics on race, gender and ethnicity.

And then there’s the double whammy that takes place when businesses make investment decisions based on an inaccurate count. That could hold a community hostage to countless financial misunderstandings regarding investments, loans, government support for years.

Aware of the need to avoid undercounts, city and state officials rallied early so the census county wouldn’t go wrong.

Pointing to an undercount in 2010, Illinois spent $29 million on getting an accurate count. The state estimated that a one percent undercount would cause the yearly loss of $19.5 million in shortchanged federal funding. In fact, Illinois suffered a nearly two percent undercount of about 250,000 persons, according to an updated survey by the U.S. Census. Chicago officials have pinned the cost of an undercount at $1,400 per person per year.

Stephen Franklin

Stephen Franklin is a former labor writer and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, reporting from Afghanistan to Peru. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he also worked for the Detroit Free Press, Philadelphia...

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