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UI Professor: Census Participation ‘Crucial’ To Ensure Funding, Representation

Millions of American households this month will receive an invitation from the U.S. Census Bureau to participate in the 2020 census.

Julie Dowling is a University of Illinois professor and chair of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations Courtesy of LAS at Illinois

Julie Dowling, chair of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, and a professor of Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says it’s important to get an accurate count because the census is tied to political representation as well as state and local funding.

“How funds are allocated from the federal government to the state, as well as from the state to different communities, is done by the numbers,” Dowling says. “And that’s why it’s really crucial, because your community could lose a lot of money by the number of people that are not counted.”

The federal government is mailing information to households now; Dowling says a paper version will also be available for those who don’t want to participate in the census online.

Households that don’t respond online or on paper will be contacted by census workers in April and May. People may also receive phone calls at that time.

To learn more about the importance of participation in the 2020 census, Illinois Public Media spoke with Dowling.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Christine Herman: Can you remind us why it’s important that everyone participate in the census?

Julie Dowling: The census is really, really important for issues of political representation. The numbers that we get for state and local areas dictate what kind of representation we get for Congress at the federal level, and also in our Statehouses. And so if (enough people) don’t fill out the census, Illinois stands to lose another seat in Congress.

The numbers are also really critical for the money that comes from the federal government.

CH: What are the types of services are those funds used for by the state and local communities?

JD: Everything from things like medical, community care issues, education, roads, (determining) which areas will need hospitals, all of these things are determined by the population counts for your community.

CH: And there’s already concern about Illinois’ declining population potentially affecting funding. So if people choose not to participate in the census, that could also further hurt the state, as well as individual communities?

JD: Absolutely. 

CH: I understand there will not be a question about citizenship on the census this year, even though last year, people may have seen the media coverage of efforts that were being made to try to include it. Are census planners right now worried that people may have misconceptions about that, which might discourage them from participating?

JD: Yes, definitely. A recent report that was put out by NALEO, the National Association for Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, that found there were a lot of people who still felt concerned, that they thought (a question about citizenship) was going to be on the form.

The fact that it was in the media for over a year and a half means, people were seeing that in the news cycles and not aren’t always sure whether it’s going to be there. 

We’re really working hard, community groups are doing messaging to be sure people understand that there will be no citizenship question.

CH: And what is your feeling right now about readiness? Are we ready to get an accurate count right now with the way things are going, both nationally and here in Illinois?

JD: The Census (Bureau) has spent an inordinate amount of resources and money gearing up for this and community groups have been at the forefront, basically trying to make sure that they get their messaging out. 

There are a lot of groups that are working really hard to make this happen. A lot of time, energy and effort has been put into this and we’re hopeful that people will participate. 

It’s a really challenging time right now, especially, in addition to (confusion about whether there’s) a citizenship question, we also have the COVID-19 situation going on right now; students are being relocated off of campuses, for example. 

Students are counted where they live, and so for example, at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, the university will be counting all persons who reside in dorms. Individuals who live off-campus and in apartments should be counted where they live. And if, for example, they’re away for a period of time due to the virus, if they’re sent back home, that could possibly impede their participation. 

Of course, there’s still non-response follow-up, which will (involve census workers) attempting to reach those individuals. But it’s going to be a really interesting situation to see how this plays out in terms of participation.

CH: Anything else you feel is important for people to understand about the 2020 census?

JD: A question that has been central to some of my research is about the race question. We were hoping to get a different race question that would include options for Latino individuals and the Middle Eastern and North African community. We had a lot of research, over a decade of research, to develop a new format that would better capture our racial diversity in this country. And unfortunately, we had a change in administration and that was not allowed to move forward. And so we still have a question that will not have options for those communities.

And so that’s still a challenge for Latinos or Middle Eastern individuals who approach the census and don’t see a racial option for themselves. So we’re encouraging people, if you don’t see your identity there on the form as you’d like to put it, to mark other and write it in.

But this is an issue, even though you might think, ‘It’s just a race question, they could just check “Other.”‘ Anything that causes someone to pause and feel unsure how to fill it out is an impediment to filling out the form. They might feel confused, not know what to answer, and then possibly not answer the question or not answer the census fully. This is why it’s still an issue. It contributes to under-count if we don’t have a form that’s easy to fill out.

Find more information about the 2020 census online.

Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman

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Christine Herman

Christine Herman is a Ph.D. chemist turned audio journalist who covers health for the Illinois Newsroom. Her reporting for Illinois Public Media/WILL has received awards from the Illinois Associated Press Broadcasters Association, the Public Media Journalists Association and has reached both regional and national audiences through WILL's health reporting partnership with Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News. Christine started at WILL in 2015.

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