Politics & Government

People in East St. Louis don’t trust the census. That could cost Illinois millions.

St. Clair County has 11 of the most ‘hard-to-count” census tracts in Illinois — all located in or near East St. Louis — where many residents live in poverty and have a distrust of the government.

If census officials fail to break through in these areas, it could cost the state millions in federal funds and one or more seats in Congress.

“Because in our country there’s been a whole history of discrimination and wealth and income inequality, you’ve now got a racial divide where people who are poor are more likely to be a part of racial-ethnic groups,” said Julie Dowling, an adviser to the U.S. Census Bureau. “You’ve got the added issue of possible cynicism and lack of faith in the government.”

Dowling is chairwoman of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee and an associate professor of Latin Studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Hard-to-count areas are swaths of land where individuals can be hard to locate, interview, contact or persuade to participate in the census.

St. Clair County has the second-highest number of these areas outside of Chicago, with an estimated 30,000 living in the tracts.

Census data suggests that in the metro-east’s hard-to-count tracts, low median household incomes, high populations of minorities who may distrust government and several other factors play into the scores. Between the 11 tracts of land, the average median household income is $20,963 and all but one tract is more than 80 percent African American or Hispanic.

These areas have become a focus for the U.S. Census Bureau and the state of Illinois ahead of the 2020 Census — due to the mounting worries that an undercount could cost the state money and representation in Congress.

An estimated 16 percent of all Illinoisans live in areas considered hard-to-count. In the metro-east, the 11 tracts of land in St. Clair County have a roughly 30-35 percent low response score with the U.S. Census Bureau, meaning that’s how many people the government believes it’s missing. These areas are in or near East St. Louis, Washington Park, Centreville and Alorton.

One of those tracts, tract 5005, located between Washington Park and East St. Louis, has a low response score of 35.5 percent, one of the most significant response scores outside of Chicago. That’s according to the bureau’s low response scores, which calculates how difficult an area may be to survey.

The score takes into account estimates from the American Community Survey from 2013-17 and many other factors that make areas hard-to-count.

What determines a hard-to-count area?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people who fall into these demographics are considered hard-to-count:

  • Young children under the age of 5, people with mental or physical disabilities, and non-English speakers;

  • highly mobile people; the homeless, people not living in traditional housing;

  • racial and ethnic minorities, low-income people, undocumented immigrants;

  • People who distrust the government

  • LGBTQ persons.

Each of those factors can play a large part when it comes to accurate counting, depending on the area, Dowling said, adding that no one factor typically makes an area difficult to study.

For example, people living in non-permanent housing, who move often or are homeless have a significantly lower chance of being counted than those with a permanent address. That includes non-traditional living situations, like when multiple families live in one housing unit.

“It makes it more difficult to count people when there’s more housing instability which in this country is unfortunately linked to racial-ethnic divide,” Dowling said.

Racial and ethnic minorities also are at risk of being undercounted. Nearly 42 percent of the state’s black population and 33 percent of the Latino population live in areas considered hard-to-count.

Dowling said some minorities simply distrust the government or don’t believe the census will make an impact on their community.

With so many factors working against the census count, educating people who will be filling out the census in hard-to-count areas has become a primary focus for the census bureau, Dowling said. To help that process, the bureau is creating partnerships with local communities to get the word out about the census.

Chicago, for example, has more than 100 sectors that are considered hard to count.

Hard-to-Count Areas
In the metro-east, 11 tracts of lands are considered hard-to-count by the U.S. Census Bureau due to several factors. These areas have a 30 percent or higher level of low response, according to census bureau data. U.S. Census Bureau

All over the country the bureau is establishing partnerships where “early and regular” engagement is a focus. Those partnerships aim to understand and address the challenges hard-to-count populations face when it comes to the census.

“People are much more likely to trust a group they already know. If somebody from the census comes and tells you to fill out your form, you don’t know that person,” Dowling said. “If someone from your church, somebody from the community center you go to, somebody from your local community explains it to you you’re much more likely to take that information.”

Local outreach may help avoid an undercount

In East St. Louis, those partnerships have started to take root. City officials met with census officials last month and the city itself hosted a hiring fair for census workers on Friday at City Hall. Census workers are being offered $19 an hour to canvass neighborhoods.

“St. Clair County is continuing to work with the U.S. Bureau of Census, the state of Illinois and local municipalities to ensure a complete count on the 2020 census,” St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said.

East St. Louis’ Mayor Robert Eastern III is throwing his full support behind getting an accurate count in East St. Louis, a representative with the city said.

In Madison County, where only a few tracts of land have lower response rates, but not at the severity of that in St. Clair County, the County Board is considering forming a Complete Count Committee for the 2020 census. These committees, which have been formed nationwide, serve as bases for community partnerships.

If that committee were formed, its work would include ensuring townships and cities in Madison County are properly preparing for the 2020 Census.

Emmett Morris, a coordinator with the U.S. Census Bureau, said those types of partnerships are key to making a difference in these areas. He said with the help of local leaders and individuals, the bureau hopes to make the census more accessible and more understandable.

He said helping communities understand how census data influences their day-to-day lives is crucial.

“The numbers do have an impact on lives,” he said. It impacts maintaining things as they are, sustaining them and improving them in terms of the future.

Morris said that’s why Complete Count committees and other outreach work is so important to the 2020 Census.

He said its important for communities to make the census “their own.”

“No community should want to miss the opportunity to make sure everyone’s counted because these are numbers we live with for 10 years,” he said.

New challenges ahead

Anita Banerji, director of Illinois non profit coalition Forefront’s Democracy Initiative and census outreach, said another major challenge for Illinois and the country will be the digital aspect of the 2020 Census.

Next year will mark the first time the census will be completed online. For some, Banerji said, that could be a deciding factor for whether a person will or will not fill out their census, especially in downstate Illinois

“When we know there’s a lack of access to broadband and that people in central and southern Illinois may not use their phones in the same ways people in urban areas do we know that it will be a challenge,” she said.

On average, in the 11 tracts considered hard to count in St. Clair County, only 43.3 percent have access to broadband Internet and a computer.

It can be a challenge, Banerji added, for some people to be open to providing their information electronically and that there are “thousands” of cybersecurity risks — especially when those populations already have a rocky relationship with the government.

Another added challenge Banerji noted was the citizenship questions, which she said has made the census less attractive to many populations of color. She said while the question is no longer slated to be on the ballot, its may have added to some people’s distrust of the process as a whole.

What’s at stake for Illinois?

At the state level, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed an executive order in June to bolster Illinois’ efforts to receive an accurate count during the census, establishing a census office in Chicago and budgeting $29 million for preparation and education throughout the state.

“These resources will go directly to outreach and education, with grants to community organization across the state engaged in this work, particularly in our hard-to-count communities,” Pritzker said about the executive order.

Funding wise, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said Illinois could lose $120 million annually for every 1 percent of the population that is undercounted. That can trickle down, Banerji said, because federal funding in spread throughout the Illinois districts based on census counts.

“If we’re not accounting for some traditionally undercounted or hard-to-count populations in rural America, then we aren’t not getting the rightful dollars we deserve for the various social services go to in any given state,” she said. “People rely on these services and we don’t want to deprive them of that access.”

Banerji said that’s a problem for Southern Illinois, where congressional districts are getting bigger and representation is potentially shrinking.

“Chances are we’re going to lose one (congressional seat),” she said. “But if we don’t make a concerted effort to work together across the state we could likely lose two.”

Declining population makes for an uphill battle

Illinois has another hill to climb, however, due to a continuing shrinking population. From 2017 to 2018, Illinois lost 45,000 residents, one of the biggest losses in the country.

That decline is evident in the metro-east, where every county but Monroe saw population drops from 2017 to 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Citywise, O’Fallon was the only major city in Southern Illinois that hasn’t lost population in the same time frame.

A past census report showed that Madison County’s population dropped by 0.4 percent, from 265,471 in 2017 to 264,461 in 2018, or by roughly 1,000 people. In St. Clair County the population drop was higher, losing more than 1,300 people between 2017 and 2018, or by 0.5 percent.

That means even with an accurate count, the state is prone to lose federal funds and, as Banerji fears, congressional representation.

The 2020 census is set to kick off April 1, 2020.


Why we did this story

This story is one of many the Belleville News-Democrat plans to cover ahead of the 2020 Census. We are following how the metro-east and Illinois are preparing for the census because next year’s population count could have big implications when it comes to federal funding and congressional represenatation.

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat

Kavahn Mansouri covers government accountability for the Belleville News-Democrat, holding officials and institutions accountable and tracking how taxpayer money is spent.
Support my work with a digital subscription