A row of homes in North Lawndale. Credit: Provided

NORTH LAWNDALE — With the decennial census count underway, participation on the West Side is lagging far behind, according to city data.

West Side communities with hard-to-count populations have some of the lowest turnout rates. In the 24th Ward, which covers North Lawndale, less than 33 percent of residents have responded so far, compared to a citywide response rate of over 47 percent, according to city data.

Only three wards in the city have a lower turnout rate so far.

“I told you I would never abandon the West Side. Now it’s your turn to invest in community by taking the census,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a video addressing low response rates. The mayor’s citywide goal is 75 percent, higher than the 70 percent response rate in 2010.

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.

Every uncounted resident will cost the state up to $1,800 in federal funds per year, Illinois Census Director Oswaldo Alvarez said. 

The count also affects political representation, said Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th). If people are undercounted, the area could risk losing a U.S. congressional district.

When residents in the ward don’t complete the census, it makes it more difficult for him to advocate for economic development, housing, and jobs in the historically under-resourced area, he said.

“We are always talking about how underrepresented we are in terms of resources,” Scott said. “This is one of the ways that you participate in your government to make sure that resources are allocated to your community… if you want those things in your community it’s important that you get counted.”

The area surrounding Douglas Park has had a particularly low turnout: in the pocket of North Lawndale just east of the park that falls within the 28th Ward, less than 23 percent of residents have filled out the census. 

North Lawndale and other West Side neighborhoods are impacted by social conditions that make them especially difficult to count, said State Rep. La Shawn Ford. But it is still important to engage undercounted groups like children, babies, undocumented immigrants and people experiencing homelessness so that they can be effectively represented in this census.

“For decades West-Side communities have lost billions of federal money for schools, hospitals, businesses, and economic development due to an undercounted and inaccurate population count,” Ford said. “I urge everyone to be wise and be counted.”

West Side neighborhoods are already starting off the census at a disadvantage because West Side residents in jail or in prison are counted as residents of the facility where they reside instead of their home address. This drains resources from communities impacted by over-policing and mass incarceration and shifts federal dollars to downstate areas overrepresented by prison populations, Ford said.

In the LaSalle County, where the Sheridan Correctional Center is located, 34 percent of the population counted in the 2010 census was incarcerated though the vast majority of inmates resided in Chicago, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative.

In Austin, which Ford represents, turnout has been higher than in other parts of the West Side.

Across the 29th Ward that covers much of Austin, 46 percent of residents have responded. In the 37th Ward, which includes parts of Austin, West Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park, the response rate has been just over 38 percent.

Federal funds generated by an accurate count can be used for job training programs, housing vouchers, head start and special education programs in schools, and health resources like Medicaid and substance abuse treatment, said Ald. Emma Mitts (37th).

“These are all especially important right now during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, which is disproportionally affecting Black and Latino communities,” Mitts said. “Essentially, the Census is important because it affects nearly every future aspect of our community.”

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

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

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