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Back of the Yards

With Lowest Census Response Rate In The City, Officials Tell Back Of The Yards Residents: ‘Even If You Are Undocumented — You Count’

The latest numbers show only 29.9 percent of households have completed the census in the 15th Ward, which includes the Back of the Yards, West Englewood, Gage Park and Brighton Park neighborhoods.

The Plant in Back of the Yards
Eric Allix Rogers/ Open House Chicago
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BACK OF THE YARDS — As city officials roll out citywide numbers on census participation, the 15th Ward is at the bottom of the pack.

The latest numbers show only 29.9 percent of households have completed the census in the 15th Ward, which includes the Back of the Yards, West Englewood, Gage Park and Brighton Park neighborhoods. That is the lowest participation rate of all 50 wards, data shows.

The 12th ward, which also includes Back of the Yards, Little Village and McKinley Park, ranks near the bottom with 33 percent participation, according to city data.

Citywide participation is about 47 percent, far below the nearly 66 percent who took part in the 2010 Census.

The U.S. Census Bureau counts the country’s entire population each decade as mandated by the U.S. Constitution. The count provides critical data to lawmakers as they distribute billions of federal dollars each year, including funding for hospitals, fire departments, schools, roads, and other resources.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) said he was very concerned his ward “hovered around the bottom in participation” so far in the census count.

Lopez said his office took part in a census town hall earlier this year that saw “little traction” among 15th Ward residents. He attributes a lack of engagement in the census to a distrust in the government as well as other barriers to participation.

“I represent a lot of communities that are often difficult to count… particularly undocumented immigrants, who are not very trusting of government,” Lopez said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) at a City Council meeting in February 2020.

He also acknowledged that there were a number of residents who “do not have consistent regular mail, or access to internet and email,” making it difficult for residents to fill out the census.

“I have said for years that my communities generally do not have the same bandwidth…for accessing information and engaging in government through online portals and we are seeing that right now,” Lopez said.

Over the last few years, a seed of distrust of the federal government has intensified as the Trump administration has threatened raids and stepped up enforcement nationwide against undocumented immigrants.

The administration also attempted to put a citizenship question on the 2020 form.

City and state officials denounced the tactics as a way to dissuade undocumented immigrants from participating in this census count.

Related: Trump Crackdown On Sanctuary Cities A ‘Crass’  Effort To Scare Immigrants Away From Census, Officials Say

Elected officials and neighborhood groups have been working to spread the word to immigrant communities across the city about the importance of the census. 

In a video message to Back of the Yard residents, Mayor Lori Lightfoot emphasized the census was “safe to fill out the census for everyone.”

“It’s confidential, it’s secure and we need it…Everyone in the city can and should take the census, even if you are undocumented — you count,” Lightfoot said.

The mayor is aiming for a 75 percent citywide response rate, though the targets for each ward vary. This is the first year households are able to fill out the questionnaire electronically; households still can complete it by mail or phone.

Ald. Lopez said he is working to set up his office as a “conduit” for residents to fill out census information.

“We were coming up for a plan to mail, robocall, and tweet that my office will be willing to help them fill out the census,” Lopez said. “We have begun on a limited basis, assisting residents when they call for city services” and help them fill out the census during those calls, he said.

“It’s my hope to do that when we resume semi-normal operation” to use the office as a call center to help with the census, he said. 

Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights Census Campaign Director Maria Fitzsimmons said the group has been adapting to the pandemic in order to educate the immigrant and refugee communities about the benefits of bringing more resources to communities.

In lieu of door knocks, Fitzsimmons said they are leaving literature in the form of door hangers.

The immigrant rights advocacy group and their community partners across the city have stepped up phone banking, passed out census coloring books through meal pick up programs at schools, distributed yard signs to spread the word.

RELATED: With Caravan Of Cars, Immigrant Groups Urge Little Village Neighbors To ‘Be Counted’ By Census

“At the end of the day, I’m at the mind that door knocking is really a tried and true solid tactic, but when we can’t do that we have to be as creative as possible and try as many different things,” she said.

As part of immigrant heritage month, the organization is kicking off with immigrant and refugee census day on June 1st, Fitzsimmons said.

Gov. JB Pritzker previously said the state risks losing $195 million per year for each 1 percent of the population undercounted.

Ignoring the survey, which takes about 10 minutes to fill out online, means your neighborhood won’t get its fair share of more than $675 billion per year in federal funds spent on schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other programs.

“Illinois only had a 70 percent response rate in 2010 and each year the state has gotten about $34 billion just based on our census count,” Illinois Census Director Oswaldo Alvarez said. “Just imagine if everyone in the state had been counted 10 years ago.”

Aside from determining federal resources, census counts also determine the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives, and they are used to draw congressional and state legislative districts.

Illinois is also projected to lose at least one downstate congressional seat due to population loss.

“An undercount in 2020 can lead to us losing even more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Alvarez said. “Count yourself in the census so you have more of a voice in both your local and federal governments.”

Despite the low response rate,  Ald. Lopez said his office was going to push forward.

“We want to make sure as many as my residents are counted as possible,” Lopez said. “Not only for the dollars that associated with but also for representation and to be able to point to the true number of people that we serve and help to address the needs they have in… various communities.”

“As we see now, where resources are slow to get to in this pandemic, will be even slower in the future if the government is not acknowledging that people exist in these neighborhoods.”

The final date to fill out the census online is August 14.

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