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For months, organizers, elected officials and others knew they needed to work to ensure Will County residents, especially those in “hard to count” groups, would respond to the 2020 U.S. Census.
They had their work cut out for them. Parts of Joliet and Crest Hill have historically seen low response rates. Undocumented residents feared talk of a possible question about citizenship, even though it wasn’t ultimately included on the questionnaire. Additionally, about $200 million in federal funding was at stake for programs that rely on accurate census data.
Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic upended much of normal life a few months ago, activists had to adjust their strategy on the fly.
“The pandemic has definitely put a stop in a lot of our outreach efforts,” said Verenise Alvarez, the Get Out the Count Campaign director at the Spanish Community Center. “It’s just another obstacle that is in the way among all the other obstacles that were there before.”
Fortunately, many residents were able to complete the census form online this year.
So far, Will County has achieved close to a 74% response rate, outpacing Illinois as a whole, which has about a 66% response rate.
But a deeper dive into the data shows certain areas in Will County are trailing their neighbors in filling out the census questionnaire.
Several areas, or “tracts” as the census calls them, in Joliet, Crest Hill and parts of eastern Will County are seeing response rates at 50% or lower through late June. Some of those tracts span much of Joliet’s East Side.
Tanya Arias, president of the Collins Street Neighborhood Council, said the area has many residents of color and immigrants who may not trust the government with their personal information. She said that although the census doesn’t include a citizenship question, undocumented residents remain hesitant.
“There is still that fear,” Arias said.
Alvarez said her team is focusing on those areas, reminding residents there to fill out the census by Oct. 31. Because they also want to respect social distancing mandates, the campaign has had to come up with alternate ways to reach residents.
She said about 35 volunteers have been phone banking, and they’ve put up billboards and advertisements on Pace buses. Then, last week, they teamed up with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to put on a census caravan.
The 12-car caravan started by the Spanish Community Center in Joliet and drove around the city with signs and festive decorations encouraging residents to respond to the census. Volunteers wrote messages such as “You count!” on their cars.
Viviana Barajas, an ICIRR census coordinator, said similar efforts in other low-response areas such as the Little Village neighborhood in Chicago, yielded an increase in the local response rate.
Barajas said the COVID-19 pandemic has put activists in “uncharted territory,” so they needed to get creative in how to spread awareness about the census in mostly immigrant communities.
“You make it fun,” she said. “You make it visible.”
Barajas also argued the present environment should serve as evidence of why the census is important. She said accurate census data is key to ensure adequate resources for responding to the pandemic or in education spending. Although she said she tells residents that the census won’t fix systemic problems, Barajas called it a “key puzzle piece.”
“If we want a case in point of why it’s important to fill out the census, we’re living in it right now,” she said.