Although the 2020 census won't take place for another two years, the concern about its potential accuracy is starting early in Chicago.
"We've had problems in the past and we don't want those to take place," said journalist Steve Franklin, who was hosting a "speed-dating" program for journalists and public policy advocates on behalf of the non-profit Public Narrative, which seeks to teach journalists and nonprofits how to tell better stories about communities they serve.
Throughout the evening at a Loop venue, journalists were invited to connect with representatives from local nonprofit to discuss concerns about the upcoming census process. During a short panel, public-policy experts outlined some of the past and future potential issues with census-taking. A major theme was possible undercounting of minorities. Metropolitan Planning Council's Alden Loury dissected how political ward boundaries shift as African-American populations decline and Latino populations increase. Overall, shifting populations will likely cost Illinois one or two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"We can't talk about the census without talking about the political ramifications," said Celina Villanueva, of Illinois Coalition and Refugee Rights. Franklin added that undercounting likely cost Illinois $120 million in federal funding, and that Illinois came in fourth on total population loss in the last census.
A major discussion topic was the recently proposed "citizenship question," in which census takers would literally be asked if they were U.S citizens. To Latinx organizations, this would be another barrier to counting a historically undercounted population correctly. Both Villanueva and Griselda Vega Samuel, of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, highlighted the Latinx community's distrust of sharing information, particularly with an eye towards it use in deportations.
"The fears are there, but we don't have definitive answers," said Villanueva, who added that 18 states and various cities, including Chicago, are suing to remove the citizenship question. When asked about the suit's outcome, Samuel said that it was expected to win, but appeals would continue if that was not the case.
Another important change from 2010 was that the 2020 census may take place, in part, online. While those from the Latinx community, which skews younger, felt that their community would be less affected by that change, Chicago Urban League's Kathie Kane-Willis mentioned that African-American communities have both a "digital divide" and a similar distrust of government. Overall, she said, hard-to- count communities have more "commonalities than differences."
An overarching concern was the lack of federal infrastructure in place to run an accurate census. Rick Bryant, who was not on the panel but there on behalf of U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, pointed out that the 2010 census had been test-run in five places, whereas the only test run for 2020 is set for Providence, Rhode Island. This struck Bryant as being "deliberately underprepared."
"Clearly, the administration is not concerned about a full count," Bryant said.
Kane-Willis concurred, pointing out that there were 200 census workers in Chicago before 2010, as compared to six right now, although she attributed the perceived lack of readiness to "incompetence, rather than a master plan." She added that undercounts historically affect cities and "blue states with immigrant populations."
All of the panelists agreed on the census's importance for business. "It's resources, it's money, there's a million and one different reasons," said Villanueva. Loury mentioned the importance of having an accurate idea of potential markets, and in particular, how low-income communities rely on their population size to attract investment.
"It's vital for these communities to show they're vibrant," Loury said. Speaking as a researcher, he also called census data "the primary source for the field of study around society itself."
The various nonprofits invited to connect with the journalists in the audience each spoke briefly about their concerns about census accuracy. Many mentioned how an undercount was possible within their community and how a lack of funding would impact their goals. Illinois Collaboration on Youth's Angie Jimenez in particular citied how the state budget impasse had closed organizations serving youth and caused DFCS and child welfare service rates to skyrocket. Youths, particularly those 5 and younger, are a notoriously hard population to count accurately, and Jimenez also mentioned that LGBTQ homeless youth were a particularly vulnerable population to undercounting. ( While the 2020 census will be the first to officially ask about same-sex relationships, there remains no question about LGBTQ identity for the unpartnered. )
Common Cause's Brian Gladstein summed up the urgency and importance of having an accurate census, even if the administration who coordinated loses power past 2020. Accurate or not, the information the census gathered, Gladstein said, "will affect us for the next 10 years."