CHICAGO — There are some neighborhoods in Chicago, especially those with high numbers of Latinx immigrants like Back of the Yards, that have had stubbornly low census response rates. As we approach the U.S. Census Bureau’s Sept. 30 deadline, we asked people about the census and listened to their fears, hopes and the resources they want in their communities. What does the census mean to Latinx immigrants living in these neighborhoods, and why do they respond or not?
Whether or not they participate in the decennial count, many want their neighborhoods improved, and ultimately their communities recognized. And that can become very personal.
Back of the Yards
In late August, Teresa laid out clothes on a table she set up in front of her home, where she was selling items for as low as one dollar. City Bureau is withholding her full name for privacy. She’s lived here for 20 years, and she can’t remember completing the census once. In Back of the Yards, where she lives, the census response rate is the lowest in the city, at 26.8%. It didn’t break past 45% in 2010, when the overall citywide response rate was 62.4%. Teresa said she won’t complete the census this year because she worries she’ll be deported if she does. The U.S. Census Bureau is bound by law to keep answers confidential, and every employee takes an oath to protect people’s information.
“In reality it’s better for me not to do it. I don’t know if all of a sudden they use that information to kick us out. When I have my whole life here, and back in Mexico I have nothing,” Teresa said. “It makes my life like a cage made of gold.”
Teresa had her heart shattered two years ago when she lost her son. He was killed while out with some friends in Back of the Yards, leaving behind a daughter, three younger sisters and a barbershop he owned in the neighborhood. He was 28.
The loss of her son affected her health.
“I didn’t have motivation for anything, I was sick,” she said. “I had to go to the hospital various times for my head pressure. I went to the psychologist and neurologist.”
She sought care at the Cook County Health and Hospital System, which started a program that helps uninsured people gain access to health care. At that time, U.S. Census Bureau data showed that about 900,000 Illinoisans lacked health insurance. To Teresa, this program was essential for her health. Juggling all the other costs of living plus medical bills would have otherwise been overwhelming, she said.
As she thought about these programs, and how their creation is informed by census data, Teresa had second thoughts and considered completing the census, but she still wasn’t sure.
Not far from her table, Juvencio Morales swore against completing the census; he said he’s frustrated.
“I didn’t do the census and I won’t do the census. They do what they want to us, especially the government. They do what they want to Hispanic people. They don’t count us,” he said. He expressed feeling disillusioned with the government from the federal to local level.
“I’m a legal resident. But if I was a citizen I wouldn’t vote for any president.”
Between Teresa and Morales’ households, that’s four people who won’t be counted in this year’s census in Back of the Yards.
Morales lives upstairs from neighbors, a family of five. The couple living there, Artemio and Myrna Rojas, who are citizens, said they completed the census, but they agreed with Morales’ sentiment that their needs are regularly ignored by the federal government. Artemio Rojas said for immigrants, being counted in the census doesn’t always translate to access to the same resources. He explained that while he was able to access resources like the stimulus, Juvencio, his neighbor who is a legal resident, was not eligible.
“So how is it possible that [the government] denies him assistance, meanwhile he’s still paying taxes?” Rojas said.
Not everyone on this block will go uncounted. Lorena De La Cruz, her two kids, husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law all live one house down. They plan to fill out a census form.
“I want everyone to do the census to bring more resources,” De La Cruz said.
With her two kids playing outside nearby, De La Cruz said she really wants to see more resources directed to neighborhood parks. There’s only two in the neighborhood, and gang activity can make them unsafe.
“Kids are not able to go out anywhere, especially now CPS is closed,” she said.
Francisco Ibarra lives in the Chicago Housing Authority Las Americas Apartments for seniors at 16th and Racine in Pilsen. He completed the census out of a sense of obligation “so that the government knows the number of people, and so that there’s resources.”
In the 25th Ward, a diverse ward which includes Pilsen, West Loop and Chinatown, the response rate is at 53.4% as of Sept. 14. In the census tract where he lives, the response rate is 41.3% as of Sept. 15, compared to 50.3% final count in 2010.
“Some people told me they don’t know if they’re going to do it because they’re afraid, they’re afraid that their information will be shared,” he said.
For Ibarra, federal funding for resources like health care is most important. He’s diabetic, and has recently felt dizzy and fainted, but continues to check in with his doctor. The census results impact the planning and federal funding of programs like Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) among others.
“The census is a way we bring help to our communities, to our schools, to our hospitals,” Ibarra said.
The George Washington Institute of Public Policy estimated that the undercount of Illinoisans in the 2010 census resulted in a loss of $952 per person of federal funding.
Francisca Gamez has lived in Pilsen for 28 years, and to her “it’s mine, it’s my neighborhood and I can get involved in it however I want until I die because I’m present.”
She completed the census because it’s a sense of duty, and the way to impact decisions from representatives. “Our leaders need to know we’re here.”
On the Southeast Side, the city of Chicago held an event to promote voting registration, job opportunities and filling out the census in mid-August.
In the South Chicago neighborhood, the city hosted a small event last month that wasn’t widely promoted but drew neighbors from nearby blocks. People came out to listen to a DJ who played house and dance music. Araceli Prisa brought her four children, and they played games with police officers. Prisa stood nearby and watched.
Prisa said her household of six filled out their census form this year.
“My husband completed it online,” she said. To her, it was important “to have funding for schools, access to resources that are available.” She’s worried that her neighborhood won’t be counted in time by the Sept. 30 deadline and what that could mean for neighborhood schools.
The 10th Ward, which includes parts of South Chicago, East Side, Calumet Heights and Hegewisch, has a 56.5% response rate as of Sept.14.
“It’s important to be counted.”
Another South Chicago resident, David Ferrer, said he’s comfortable with completing the census.
“It was pretty easy,” Ferrer said. “I think it’s worth doing it right now because of COVID, it feels like it’s pretty important to know how many people are around.”
For Ferrer, it’s important to have more people counted in the census to create opportunities for more events like the small gathering on the block. This event in particular was initiated by the mayor’s office to do census and voter outreach and have police do community engagement.
“I feel personally that South Chicago has been forgotten,” he said. “A lot of the upgrades that other communities get, we don’t get them. We’ve been promised a supermarket for years and we haven’t gotten that.”
The census can be filled out online or over the phone by calling 844-330-2020.