The Ripple: Challenges and importance of the 2020 Census

Maya Reter and Clare Proctor

CLARE PROCTOR: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Clare Proctor.

MAYA RETER: And I’m Maya Reter. Welcome to The Ripple, a biweekly podcast on the effects of state and national politics on the Evanston and Northwestern community. On this week’s episode, we talk about the census: why it’s important, important things you should know about it and how Evanston is taking action to make sure everyone is counted.

As the census has become a buzzword, particularly in the past couple of months, there’s still often a lot of confusion around what the census actually is and does.

KATIE DAEHLER: The census is a constitutionally mandated count of everyone living in the United States that happens every 10 years on April 1. That’s national Census Day. The census matters for a lot of things. It helps determine representation in Congress. The House of Representatives allocations are determined based on the population counts we get from the census, billions of dollars in federal funding are determined. And that’s everything from Pell Grants to infrastructure to schools and hospitals.

MAYA RETER: That was Katie Daehler, a Weinberg junior and fellow at Northwestern’s Center for Civic Engagement. The Center for Civic Engagement is doing a lot of work in anticipation of the census, which begins sending out information in mid-March.

KATIE DAEHLER: We have started to convene a task force across the University with key players from like off-campus life, graduate student affairs, government relations, public relations to try to unify the effort because there are a lot of people across the University who have key roles to play in the census, but it’s important to have a unified effort. One of the most exciting and really cool things that’s going on is we’re co-sponsoring a class that’s being run out of SESP with Prof. Dan Lewis that’s essentially a class about how to organize for the census.

MAYA RETER: For students living on campus, responding to the census is out of their hands. The University sends in a list of who is living in the dorms and responds on behalf of those residents. But for off-campus students, things are a bit less straight-forward.

KATIE DAEHLER: For one, we’re college students. We’re really busy. It’s really easy to ignore a piece of mail. Additionally, college campuses and especially students living off campus have a really unique living situation: For most of us, that means living with roommates. That can get confusing, like, “Who’s the head of household? Do each of my roommates fill out the form individually or just one of us?” The answer to that is the head of households can be whoever you want to be. It doesn’t matter. And only one person from your living unit should fill out the form on behalf of everyone.

MAYA RETER: With the primary elections going on, this can be especially confusing right now because even if students are registered to vote in another state, they are still supposed to fill out the census in the place they’re currently living, Evanston.

SARAH FLAX: In many cases, it’s kind of the opposite of where people vote. The census is measuring where people are and how many, too, because, when you think of some of the things that the federal government supports, transit, whether it’s public transportation, whether it’s roads, there’s that need to really count the number of people in an area, not just exactly the individual.

CLARE PROCTOR: That was Sarah Flax, the city’s housing and grants manager. At the city level, a lot of the focus is on getting information out to community groups and organizations and making them aware of and comfortable with the census.

SARAH FLAX: We’re working with a lot of our nonprofits that work with our potentially difficult-to-count or historically undercounted populations with flyers and other information that is targeting their needs for information and also their concerns. We have a half page flyer that is also telling people you’re going to get a mailing that asks you to go online and fill out the census because that’s to get people to start watching for the census, and on the backside, it has the schedule of when they’re going to get mailings, approximately.

CLARE PROCTOR: This is the first year that respondents can fill out the census online, in addition to mailing in a physical response sheet or answering questions over the phone. For those who are not comfortable responding online or for those who don’t have access to the internet, the city will be setting up computers at libraries and certain community centers. Even though they can’t actually enter people’s personal data, trained staff will be available to help answer questions and navigate people to the census website. These pop-up computer locations also target undercounted populations.

SARAH FLAX: We’re working with Connections to figure out if we can do a pop-up site, where it might be at a soup kitchen, where it might be at a food pantry or something like that, places where people are maybe already comfortable going.

CLARE PROCTOR: Another hot topic of discussion leading up to the census has been if it should be allowed to ask if a respondent is a U.S. citizen. The Trump administration pushed to have the question included this year, but the efforts ultimately failed, and respondents will not be asked to indicate their citizenship status. Still, many immigrant populations are fearful of filling out the census.

SARAH FLAX: There is a lot of stuff going on in this country that has intimidated recent immigrants, people who have family members who may not have all the appropriate papers to be in the United States, that sort of thing. And there’s great fear that that information could get to other parts of government. And it can’t. In the laws, it says that no personally identifiable information can be shared this for 72 years.

MAYA RETER: The Skokie Area Census Office is also currently hiring workers for the upcoming census. Marsha Cole, who was born and raised in Evanston and currently has a place in Rogers Park, worked for the census 10 years ago in Las Vegas. She plans to do so again this year.

MARSHA COLE: First of all, I’m an African American, and African Americans really don’t like and understand the census, that it’s important for us to be counted. It will help enlighten our neighborhood and get us better services. For seniors, we’re a group that are kind of thrown to the side except when it’s voting time, and then they want to talk to us. So I’d like to make sure we get counted. We have a lot to say. And I’d also like to see the homeless who are under the viaduct, in the alley sleeping in their cars, get counted because if they’re counted, then the need to help get affordable housing for the homeless will help them.

MAYA RETER: Cole works to make community members aware that they don’t need to be afraid to be counted by the census, especially the homeless population.

MARSHA COLE: People kind of stay away from them because of how they look and they, sometimes they smell not the best way. But I want to be able to walk up on them and talk to them and make them feel comfortable and let them know that they are a person and they are important, too. And I try to tell people that in the blink of the eye, or in a bad situation, they too can become homeless. Illness can make them homeless. A divorce could make them homeless. There’s all kinds of situations that put people in a position where in a blink of an eye, that could be them too.

MAYA RETER: A grassroots approach is central to collecting data for the census, which will take place over the course of about four months. Kamil Szalewicz, a partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau, works to bridge communities together with census workers to create a more effective count.

KAMIL SZALEWICZ: Local partners matter because it’s very important to have our No. 1 trusted voices, people that are known and trusted in a certain community. The other message that we’re sending relates to localizing the message because sometimes people are not aware how their response can affect their community because they’re under the impression that their response won’t matter. So we have a number of flyers that we’re sharing with people, and they’re kind of picking a couple of bullet points from those flyers, and they’re localizing the message.

MAYA RETER: Establishing these trusted voices comes through targeted initiatives through these local partnerships.

KAMIL SZALEWICZ: Sometimes, people are skeptical or there is a fear factor that’s involved, so if we’re able to get certain people on board, like executive directors of certain organizations, and they know the people that come to their places, use their services and they talk to those people, people are more likely to listen to them. And the same thing applies to faith-based leaders, so we have a faith-based initiative as well in place. In addition to that, we’re working with schools, principals and superintendents.

CLARE PROCTOR: Evanston’s response rate to the 2010 Census was relatively high, with every census tract above 73 percent. But with the new variable of having online responses as an option, city planner Cade Sterling said the effect this will have is unclear.

CADE STERLING: Theoretically, it should improve response rates because you’re just adding a medium for response. You’re not taking away what already existed. It’s just, those happen later.

CLARE PROCTOR: Oftentimes, day-to-day barriers get in the way of people filling out the census, something the city is hoping to work around this year.

CADE STERLING: It can be anything from as easy as these populations are working two, three jobs. Sometimes, they don’t have the time to respond. They might not understand the benefit. They might be distrustful of government or distrustful of what the data will be used for. I think that’s pretty prevalent.

CLARE PROCTOR: But many people who recognize the importance of the census are taking matters into their own hands and getting involved, like Arnita Mouhcine, who’s from Lake Villa, Ill., and hoping to work for the U.S. Census Bureau.

ARNITA MOUHCINE: In order for a society to function, everyone needs to be accounted for and everyone needs to be helped, because everyone needs help sometimes. And I think sometimes certain groups are overlooked. And they need to let it be known what, what it is that they’re need, in order to be productive people in society.

CLARE PROCTOR: Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you on the next episode of The Ripple. This episode was reported and produced by me, Clare Proctor, and Maya Reter. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Email: mayareter2022@u.northwestern.edu clareproctor2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @MayaReter @ceproctor23

Related stories:
SASA hosts workshop on South Asian engagement in the 2020 Census
Northwestern takes initial steps to reduce 2020 Census undercount
How the Evanston Complete Count Committee is preparing for the 2020 Census

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