Politics & Government

Illinois could lose a second congressional seat, billions of dollars if residents dodge census

How the U.S. census will change in 2020

The 2020 census "will be unlike any other in our nation's history" and save billions of dollars, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency says it will use different innovative tools to get the most accurate and cost effective count. This me
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The 2020 census "will be unlike any other in our nation's history" and save billions of dollars, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency says it will use different innovative tools to get the most accurate and cost effective count. This me

This is the first part in a Capitol News Illinois series addressing Illinois’ efforts to prepare for the 2020 census and what the state stands to lose if its population is undercounted.

The potential loss of two congressional seats and billions of dollars in federal funding are only two of the problems facing Illinois if it cannot get all of its residents to respond to the 2020 census.

Although the official count does not start for another year, the federal government and state and local governments are ramping up their efforts to make the next census as accurate as possible.

Activists, lawmakers and community leaders around the state, meanwhile, are fighting to address all the factors that might contribute to an undercount.

The 2020 census

The federal census is conducted every 10 years to count population and demographics for every household in the country. The data is used to reapportion congressional seats and distribute more than $800 billion in funds for more than 300 federal programs, according to a study by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

In fiscal year 2016, for example, Illinois received more than $34.3 billion in federal funds for 55 federal spending programs guided directly by data from the 2010 census.

This is on top of dozens of state programs that use census data to appropriate money and services, including but not limited to local government unit boundaries and redistricting, tax credits, agency appropriations and school and infrastructure needs.

“It’s everything from schools to highways getting paved to the information McDonald’s needs to build another franchise,” said Jay Young, executive director of nonpartisan Common Cause Illinois, which works on redistricting and election reform as well as census outreach.

The 2010 census

Illinois’ initial response rate to the 2010 census was 80.7 percent, which puts it in the middle of the pack compared to other states.

Census workers had to follow up either by mail or in person to get responses from the other 19.3 percent, and an unspecified number of those people did not respond at all.

While the exact undercount number is not clear, “it is a general consensus that Illinois was historically undercounted during the 2010 Census efforts and data seems to support this theory,” according to a November report by the Illinois Complete Count Commission, a panel of elected officials from all over the state created to help with census outreach.

For every one person missed, according to the George Washington study, Illinois lost $953 in federal dollars.

In fiscal year 2015 alone, according to the same study, Illinois lost $123 million in federal funding for every 1 percent of the population not counted in 2010.

Stacked up over the years, the Complete Count Commission’s report said, those numbers amount to “the forfeiture of billions of dollars in federal assistance that aid in the support of children, veterans, senior citizens and middle- and low-income families, as well as ... schools, healthcare facilities and infrastructure.”

But federal dollars are not the only loss Illinois faces with a census undercount.

Congressional representation

The census also determines state representation in Congress. Every 10 years, the federal government doles out congressional seats based on the size of each state’s population.

Illinois has been losing congressional seats since the 1930s, falling to its current number of 18. With the estimated state population declining over the last five years, however, Illinois is all but guaranteed to lose another congressional seat after 2020.

But the state also faces the loss of an additional seat – not because of people leaving, but because of people not responding to the census.

“We think we’re so close to losing two that it’s within the margin that will be controlled by the potential undercount,” Young said.

Election Data Services, a consulting firm that analyzes congressional seat changes using the Census Bureau’s complicated formula for reapportionment, issued a report in December backing this up.

Assuming the loss of one seat already, Illinois is holding onto the 435th congressional seat by a mere 25,149 to 53,598 people, according to Election Data Services.

That’s less than half of 1 percent of the state’s population, a number that, based on county-by-county response rates, could reasonably be undercounted in the next census.

Illinois’ congressional maps will have to be redrawn after the census to account for one lost seat. If a second seat is lost, it would require even greater changes decided through a deeply partisan redistricting process carried out by state lawmakers that always favors the party in power.

All three branches of the state government are currently controlled by Democrats.

Illinois also would lose two electoral votes, weakening its strength in future presidential elections.

Future installments in this series will examine a number of bills moving through the Legislature and specific outreach efforts by local governments and organizations to address the factors that make a 2020 undercount likely.