North Lawndale still trails much of the city in census responses — and its residents are among the hardest to count in Chicago, according to a citywide analysis of federal data.
What makes a community tough to count is different for each neighborhood. The data on hard-to-count populations takes into account factors like language barriers, age, internet access, how many residents rent versus own and how much of the population is living in poverty.
The data estimates that in parts of Lawndale, up to 40 percent of residents may not respond to their mail-in census surveys.
Parts of the neighborhood have a response rate as low as 32 percent, compared to a citywide average of 56 percent.
At the same time, the federal government announced last week it will end the U.S. Census count one month earlier than expected.
Neighborhood groups are helping the city boost census participation in the area. Organizers said the longstanding social conditions that made West Siders hard to count were only exacerbated by coronavirus.
“They’re not very trusting that their information is going be used the way that the census says is going to be used,” said Angela Brown, a director at Sinai Community Institute, which is working to increase census participation in Lawndale.
The legacy of disinvestment, redlining and poverty in Lawndale has left many residents distrustful of the census, said Karen Castleberry, who is helping with census outreach through I Am Able, a trauma-informed care agency. Much of her outreach has been focused on educating residents on how important the census is since many have been disillusioned by how the government has historically failed Black people on the West Side.
“There are many age groups who do not participate in the civic duties of voting and census because they look at what they’ve experienced through the years with lack of representation, lack of resources. … North Lawndale is a community of lack,” Castleberry said.
Castleberry said many residents she has spoken to have given up on participating because of what they perceive as deliberate efforts to by the government to ignore them. Voter ID laws, restrictions on mail-in ballots, questions about immigration status and the recent shortened deadline for the census have sent a message to Black communities that they don’t count, Castleberry said.
“Eventually, you just don’t participate,” she said.
A large portion of Lawndale residents have also been involved in the criminal justice system, which has led many to mistakenly assume they won’t be counted in the census, said Javonna Askew, who works with I Am Able. Many think people convicted of felonies lose their right to vote, which is not true in Illinois. Askew said that misunderstanding leads many to believe they lose the right to participate in other civic duties, like the census.
“A lot of the younger generation in North Lawndale feel that they don’t have the right to vote because of their criminal background,” Askew said. “So they completely separate themselves from the system that they feel like they don’t have the power to change.”
Askew has also encountered many instances where a family’s reliance on social services has led them to avoid the census or otherwise under-report on the census.
“They’ve been apprehensive to give housing numbers because they’ve been under the impression that would affect their eligibility for government assistance,” she said.
Many in Lawndale use food stamps are are afraid if they accurately report the number of people in the household, they may lose some of the money they rely on. In particular, renters experiencing housing insecurity who depend on Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers fear they will be dropped from the program entirely if they have more people living in a home than what is allowed.
“Maybe a friend came home from prison and he’s sleeping on the couch. They won’t count a friend because they feel that it would affect their housing eligibility,” she said.
In other instances, people who are housing insecure or experiencing homelessness often aren’t included in the census because they are unaware they still count even if they are in a temporary living situation, like staying with family, friends or at a shelter, organizers said.
The neighborhood organizations have pushed back on misinformation by raising awareness that everybody counts, regardless of age, citizenship status, criminal history or income.
I Am Able’s organizers have integrated census education and outreach into every aspect of their work, including their mental health services and COVID-19 support. The organization delivers groceries to elderly people, which gives them the opportunity to meet people where they are at and overcome barriers like the lack of digital access in Lawndale.
They are also teaching people about why the census is important, as the state government can lose around $1,800 per year for each person that skips the census. That money funds social services and public investment.
Likewise, Sinai has been phone banking to remind people to participate in the census. They’ve also incorporated census outreach into doctors visits, community events and partnering with schools, day cares and churches to get the word out.
“It is important for our children’s future,” Brown said. “When we think, ‘What do we want to look like 10 years from now?’ We have to do something today in order to affect our tomorrow.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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