CHATHAM — Neighborhoods throughout the South Side are lagging behind in census participation rates, prompting local officials to try to galvanize residents through social media, ad campaigns and virtual town hall meetings.
The response rate for the 8th Ward, which includes parts of South Shore, Chatham, Avalon Park, and Calumet Heights, is currently at 46 percent, well below its 71 percent goal, according to city data.
Surrounding communities aren’t faring much better: 38 percent of households in the 6th Ward, which includes Englewood, Greater Grand Crossing, Chatham and Auburn Park have responded. Its target rate is 67.9 percent.
Only 33 percent of households have completed census forms in the 20th Ward, which includes parts of Englewood, Woodlawn, Jackson Park and Washington Park. The goal for that ward 66.1 percent completion.
Census data is used to determine how much federal funding a community receives for critical services, and whether that community can be redistricted.
In response, South Central Community Services (SCCS), an Avalon Park-based nonprofit, hosted its first virtual Census 2020 town hall on last week. The forum allowed viewers to ask questions about what to expect when filing out the census form and how it benefits underserved communities.
It is the first in a series of planned efforts to boost census response, according to radio personality Bonnie DeShong, who also serves as SCCS’s First Vice-President.
“It’s really important for people of color because our numbers have been dwindling,” Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) said. “What we don’t want to do is to continue to lose African American districts or change boundary lines to accommodate for the loss of people. When people aren’t counted, it begins to change what boundary lines look like for the entire state.”
This week’s panel also included State Sens. Elgie Sims and Marcus Evans, Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore, SCCS Chairman Michael Weems, Community Assistance Programs Chairman Michael Holmes and Census 2020 Partnership Specialist Cory Stevenson.
The census also determines how emergency disaster relief funding is distributed, which is extremely important now that the country is fighting a global pandemic, Stevenson added.
Census staff, who collaborate with other organizations like SCCS to do community outreach, have had to change their strategies and schedules in the wake of COVID-19, temporarily closing field offices and relying on a more technology-based approach. Teams are now sending gentle text reminders to families and tablets have replaced paper forms. In-person non-response follow-ups are expected to start in August and continue through the end of October.
Panelists also tried to dispel some of the myths around the process, including concerns about census information being used by government or law enforcement to seize property or execute warrants.
“You’re not authorizing the government to come in your home and take stuff away from you,” Sims said. “When you fill out the census, all you’re saying is that these are the people who lived at this address on this date.”
The census is an effective tool for genealogy research as well, he added.
“One of the things I take great pride in is looking at the census from when my grandparents and great-grandparents were filling them out and seeing all those documents to know that we are walking in history, and generations behind us will be doing the same thing.”
The date for the next town hall has yet to be announced.