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Census Efforts Continue In Illinois Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

People can respond online to the U.S. Census for the first time in 2020.
U.S. Census Bureau
U.S. Census Bureau
People can respond online to the U.S. Census for the first time in 2020.

About a third of Illinois households still need to fill out their 2020 census forms, according to the U.S. Census Bureau .

Census officials touted Wednesday upcoming efforts to encourage people to participate in the census before the in-person follow-up begins, which was delayed until this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The efforts include more paid advertising and census takers standing outside grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential businesses to help people fill out the forms. A spokesman for the regional census office in Chicago could not confirm if workers would be posted outside of Illinois businesses in the next few weeks.

People who fill out the form – or self-respond – avoid getting an in-person visit, said Tim Olson, associate director of field operations for the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We believe that through these new efforts that we’re launching in a week from now we’ll even achieve a higher self-response than what we have now,” Olson said on a call with reporters.

The federal agency has extended the timeframe for when residents can fill out the form online, over the phone or by mail through October 31.

Nationwide, the self-response rate is 61.9%, while Illinois’ is 66.7%, according to a map on the Census Bureau’s website. The Prairie State is ahead of most others, but lags behind the 70.5% response rate from the 2010 Census.

The overall response rate is good, said Jay Young, director of Common Cause Illinois – a Chicago-based civic engagement group working to ensure an accurate count. But he said there are still concerns about certain demographics being undercounted.

“The hard-to-count communities that we thought were going to be hard to count on the outset still remain communities of concern – the immigrant communities, children under five, people who have food insecurity, housing insecurity,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has hampered some efforts to ensure all Illinoisans participate.

Young said advocates across the state had planned in-person events for the spring and summer. Before the pandemic hit and restrictions on gatherings were put in place, Common Cause asked its members to plan house parties where people could fill out their census forms and organize efforts to make sure their whole block was counted.

Now, Young said they're sending emails or phone banking. Other groups are handing out census education material at school lunch pick-ups.

“They’re really thinking about what your community is doing in this time and trying to connect there,” Young said.

One bit of good news, said Young, is that Illinois, unlike most states, is still providing more than $14 million in grants to local governments and nonprofits to promote census participation.

On Thursday, the governor extended the life of the statewide Census Advisory Panel, which recommends how to spend the money, through the end of the year. 

The pandemic has also changed the bureau’s operations. Door-to-door canvassing that was supposed to start in May got pushed to this summer. Census workers are set to begin in most of the U.S. in mid-August. Work will begin sooner in parts of Missouri, Indiana, Kansas and eight more states.

Census officials said their workers will be equipped with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and will be advised to keep a six-foot distance from those they interview.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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