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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

After Decades Of Underrepresentation In The Census, State Rep. La Shawn Ford Aims To Increase West Side Count

Ford is hoping to pass the No Representation Without Population Act, which would ensure those in prison are counted in their home district.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford.
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AUSTIN — The upcoming 2020 Census is a crucial tool for the federal government to decide where to allocate resources and where to draw the districts lines that determine how people are represented.

But since West Side residents have been historically difficult to count accurately for the Census, State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-8th) is working to connect West Side groups with funding that will help them encourage full participation in the count.

Ford assembled a 2020 Census Task Force last year to bring together key organizations in his district which includes much of the West Side with a goal of devising strategies to ensure difficult-to-count populations are counted so federal dollars don’t get diverted due to under-representation.

Since then, the Illinois General Assembly set aside $29 million for census outreach, with about $5 million benefitting the Chicago area. Ford hopes to pull together as much of those funds as possible for West Side groups.

The strategies that the State Representative is seeking to invest in will build off of the outreach the task force is already doing to reach churches, schools and workforce development programs.

“We’ve engaged people in job fairs, making sure that people from the community are able to work for the census,” Ford said. “Because we know it is important to have individuals working from the community so that when they knock on doors and they’re doing the census, people will recognize people coming to their door.”

Ford said he’s pulling all stops to reach people out west because much of the population in his district is historically marginalized by the government. It’s hard to engage people in a system they feel doesn’t serve them, he said.

“For years, the black community has been disenfranchised. And the schools, the neighborhoods have not gotten the same investment as others,” he said. “You have to have some type of feeling that you’re benefitting from a system if you want to participate in it. And so some people in the black community feel that the system does not work for them.”

Many don’t realize that all people living in the state are eligible to be counted in the census whether or not they can vote, Ford said. That includes children, babies, undocumented people and people experiencing homeless, all of which have been under-counted in past censuses.

He’ll also work to make sure people returning from or currently under incarceration are counted, who often believe they can’t be counted if they have had their voting rights restricted. For incarcerated people that are included in the census, they’re currently counted in the district where they are imprisoned rather than their home district.

According to a 2017 report by the UIC Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, more than half of the state’s prison population are Chicago residents. But 90 percent of them are incarcerated downstate, which has skewed previous census counts to divert federal dollars and siphon electoral power from black, urban districts to relatively white, rural districts where prisons are located.

By the end of this year’s veto session in the general assembly, the representative is hoping to pass the No Representation Without Population Act, which would ensure those in prison are counted in their home district.

Ford’s district and black communities across the country are disproportionately impacted by incarceration and other factors that leave them underrepresented. The representative said it is imperative for people out west to participate in the census.

“There was a time when blacks were counted as three-fifths of a person. And we fought to be counted as a whole person in this culture,” Ford said. “…And so this question is about getting more money, making sure that we have representation at all levels of government at the greatest numbers possible.”

People interested in supporting census outreach or seeking funding for projects that will increase census participation can reach Ford by emailing him at

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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