Organizing in schools for the census

February 18th, 2010  |  Published in chicago, Reporting

Community organizers in the northeast of Chicago are partnering with school communities to make sure that their neighborhoods are accurately counted in the 2010 census.

When census forms are sent out at the beginning of March, the returned forms may not record everyone living in communities in northeast neighborhoods of Chicago, which may impact funding for those communities.

Hina Mahmood, a community organizer with Organization of the Northeast, an organization of congregations, schools, nonprofits, and businesses, that engages people in issues affecting residents in northeast Chicago  neighborhoods, said the 2000 census return rate for Rogers Park was only 53 percent.

A 2001 PricewaterhouseCoopers report, commissioned by the U.S. Census Monitoring Board, showed that 2000 census undercounts resulted in lost federal funds for communities.  The report, which looked at the effects of census undercounts on funding from eight major programs from 2002 to 2012, estimated that Cook County would lose over $192 million in funding.

Housing instability is one factor that contributes to undercounting in northeast Chicago, Mahmood said.  She said people living in homeless shelters may not be counted in the census or count themselves in another neighborhood, such as the one where they grew up.

Mahmood also explained that as affordable housing disappears, some families double or triple up in a housing situation.  Fearing eviction for over-occupancy, the residents may only fill out the census form for one family, Mahmood said.

Mahmood said there is a “fear factor” for many people that keeps them from participating in the census.  Undocumented immigrants are particularly reluctant to provide census information.  Mahmood said undocumented immigrants may think, “’If I report myself, ICE or Homeland Security will come out to get me.”  But she stressed that there were safeguards in place that restrict the census bureau from sharing information with other government institutions.

Funding for public schools, libraries, transit, health care, and job development programs were all tied to census numbers, Mahmood said, adding that under-counting a community meant “missing out on really important and necessary resources.”

Organization of the Northeast facilitators such as Mahmood are trying to work with parents in a number of local schools, including Gale, Boone, and Clinton, to encourage participation in the census.  Mahmood said that organizers arrange presentations to parents by census workers to describe the census process and explain what happens when a community isn’t accurately counted.

Mahmood also saw engaging the community in the census as an opportunity to open up dialog and build leadership around other community issues.  “Who knows what other conversations will come up,” Mahmood said.