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SPRINGFIELD — With up to two Illinois congressional seats and $1 billion or more in federal funding on the line if Illinois’ population is not correctly counted in the 2020 census, nonprofit groups warn that changes to the census format could exacerbate an undercount in already hard-to-reach communities.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16 percent of Illinoisans live in “hard to count,” or HTC, communities, which require greater resources for the Census Bureau to reach and are the most likely to be undercounted.

While HTC communities can be found across the state, they each have defining characteristics that make an undercount likely, and include rural, low-income, high-immigrant and homeless populations, as well as children, renters, and ethnic or racial minorities.

The communities are prevalent in large pockets of Chicago and surrounding Cook County; urban centers around the state including Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington-Normal, Decatur and Metro East; and more rural areas, especially in southern Illinois, like Carbondale, Cairo and some southern counties, according to an article by Shawn Healy, head of the Robert R. McCormick Democracy Program.

Advocates warn that a number of national factors, including moving the census online and adding a question about a resident’s citizenship status, could make full participation even more difficult to achieve.

Census goes online

In 2020, for the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau will accept responses online. While every household will still be sent mailings, 80 percent of them will be invitations to complete the census online, rather than census forms to fill out and send back.

More traditional outreach methods, including mailed forms and in-person visits, are planned for the other 20 percent.

Griselda Vega Samuel, an attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund who also sits on the state’s Complete Count Commission for census outreach, said lack of internet access and fear of data breaches could make online participation less likely across the state, not just in hard-to-count areas.

“Given our current climate, people are really scared to put their personal information online. And in the more rural parts of the state, broadband is an issue,” she said.

Samuel’s fears appear to be corroborated by a City University of New York study that shows 18 percent of Illinoisans have no internet or only dial-up access.

This will increase the need for outreach in southern Illinois, said Anita Banerji, director of the Democracy Initiative at the nonprofit Forefront, which is leading a coalition of more than 40 local and statewide organizations on census outreach in Illinois.

“We need to focus a little more on central and southern Illinois for these reasons,” Banerji said, adding that Chicago already has some “groups and lawmakers that are really in the fight” against an undercount.

Still, for those who do get it online, “there are thousands of cybersecurity risks that are out there as well,” Banerji said. “The Bureau needs to spend time making sure the data is well protected and safe.”

That’s a tall task, Banerji added, considering the Census Bureau’s funding has been flat or underfunded since 2010, causing the cancellation of two out of three test runs for the online format leading up to the real thing.

Citizenship question

Since communities with high immigrant populations often are considered hard to count, the potential addition of a question asking about a resident’s immigration status is another obstacle to full participation.

“The question causes fear in many immigrant communities, mixed-status families, and communities of color,” Banerji said. “And not just in Chicago, either. Think about the orchard fields in Carbondale, the undocumented communities around Peoria – those folks will be impacted too.”

Two federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration’s inclusion of the question on the 2020 census, and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear one of these cases on April 23.

While this will likely decide the matter, Banerji said until the decision is final, it is difficult for her group to plan specific outreach efforts in communities that will be most adversely affected by low turnout numbers.

“Forefront would not like for the question to be on the form,” Banerji said. “But we need to know what those questions are, sooner rather than later, so that communities are armed with the right and the best information.

“There’s a huge mistrust of government, and that sentiment across the country is so strong,” so outreach efforts will need to focus on the fact that personal data, including citizenship status, is mandated to be kept private under law.

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