Dillon: Illinois Must Ensure Groups Likely to Be Overlooked Are Counted in the Census

A potential undercount threatens our representation in Congress, as well as billions of dollars in federal funding for everything from highways to health care to education.

BGA Policy Director Marie Dillon regularly writes opinion articles for the State Journal-Register.

If you weren’t already worried about the 2020 Census, the latest data dumps ought to change that. After five straight years of declining population, Illinois is on the cusp of losing not one but two seats in Congress. That would mean two fewer votes in the electoral college, too. That dials up the pressure around the decennial headcount, which starts in March.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in December that Illinois lost about 45,000 residents in the 12 months that ended in July. Breakdowns released this month showed decreases in 86 of the state’s 102 counties and in every metropolitan area.

Where did all those people go, and why? Those are important questions if Illinois is to reverse the trend and thrive. A more urgent question, for now, is how to make sure the 2020 Census doesn’t miss the ones that are left. What’s being done to ensure an accurate count?

Aside from the loss of representation, a potential undercount threatens billions of dollars in federal funding for everything from highways to health care to education.

Census numbers are also key to determining where governments and businesses put their money in the future, says Anita Banerji, director of the Democracy Initiative at Forefront, a statewide nonprofit coalition. “If we want to swing upward toward 2030, we need to use the data to decide where to build new facilities, transit hubs and small businesses,” she says. “These things are all predicated on Census data.”

To get an accurate Census, it’s important to reach out to groups that are likely to be overlooked and undercounted. That challenge will be compounded if the Census includes a proposed question about citizenship status, a decision that rests with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Banerji’s group is opposed to including the question, as is the Illinois Complete Count Commission, created by the General Assembly to prepare for the Census.

Immigrants are a historically hard-to-count population, as are racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly and disabled, those who live in rural areas, renters, low-income families and the homeless.

A new complication in 2020 is that the Census will be conducted online. In the long run, a digital count promises to be cheaper and more accurate than an army of door-to-door canvassers. But many Americans are wary of sharing information online. And one thing many of those hard-to-count populations have in common is lack of Internet access.

Making sure those groups get counted is a job for governments and advocacy groups, for organizations large and small. So-called “trusted messengers” can seek out those who might otherwise be missed and explain the importance of being counted. They can help people report online or can secure a paper form. They can address language barriers. They can ease fears about how the data can and can’t be used.

Local governments can do mailings and social media campaigns or set up hubs, in libraries for example, where people can complete the Census online.

All of this costs money. Forefront raised $1.75 million and handed out grants to 42 organizations throughout the state. Forefront is also organizing community briefings hosted by local congressmen.

The Illinois Secretary of State’s office is currently reviewing applications for $1.5 million in state grants.

Two bills awaiting action (Senate Bill 1408 and House Bill 928) would provide up to $33 million for governments and community groups to encourage full participation in the Census, particularly among hard-to-count populations.

That $33 million is a good investment when you think about how much Illinois stands to lose. Lawmakers should get it into the hands of those “trusted messengers” ASAP.

It’s not too soon to panic. It’s almost too late.