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Metro East Census Organizers Eye Lawsuit That Could Extend Count

The census will only ask if respondents are 'male' or 'female.' That leaves out a growing number of people who identify outside of that gender binary.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
A federal lawsuit in California could extend the opportunity for people to respond to the census. An extension could help Metro East organizers reach more hard-to-count households before the count finishes.

Metro East organizations working to get their communities counted by the 2020 census are watching a California lawsuit that may push the national headcount back to its original end date in October.

The lawsuit challenges a last-minute change by the Trump administration that ends the census on Sept. 30 instead of Oct. 31. The bureau had originally extended the length of the headcount to accommodate delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Reverting to the original timeline would give valuable extra time to local community organizations, which have been doing the majority of census outreach and engagement in the Metro East.

“That would be excellent,” said Yolanda Crochrell, executive director of the Quad City Community Development Center in Madison. “With the cutoff at such an abrupt moment, it forces us to cram a lot of activities or events together.”

The center has been helping residents respond to the census by setting up tables with computers at community events, like food giveaways. Crochrell explained she’s partnering with a few businesses in Venice to offer vouchers to residents who complete the census.

“We realize people need incentives to get going,” she said.

Crochrell said her organization is focused on the official remaining weeks it still has to engage residents in the harder-to-count areas of Madison County, like parts of Alton, Madison, Venice and Granite City.

“If by chance it does pass, we will definitely come back and do a couple more events in October,” she said. “Just to make sure we’ve covered and got everyone.”

Losing October is especially detrimental because most of her engagement from the community comes on Saturdays, Crochrell said — and October has five of them. Many area residents have Saturdays off work, she said.

She’s most focused on raising responses in Venice in the final weeks, with the goal of increasing the response rate to 60%, which would be in line with the other areas she’s targeted, Crochrell said.

Currently, Venice and areas in and around East St. Louis have the lowest response rates in the Metro East, hovering between 42% and 45%, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the CUNY Graduate Center. In 2010, both areas ended with final response rates near 60%.

An extension of the count would also help Stephanie Taylor, who’s been working to engage East St. Louis residents in the census. Taylor is the president and CEO of Community Development Sustainable Solutions in East St. Louis.

“We need to kick into high gear and actually meet and exceed [response rates from] 10 years ago,” she said. “Right now if we don’t make at least 60%, what we think looks bad now, what we think looks like it’s war torn, will probably crumble.”

Census counts are used to calculate how much funding a locality receives from federal and state governments. The data also determines how some grant funding and other programs are distributed to communities.

As the count winds down, Taylor is taking a more direct approach to spur census participation in her community. She and other members of her organization stand outside or across from aid offices, places where people receive food and other services, to catch residents who may not have responded to the headcount.

“I’m changing the terminology from, ‘Please engage and do the census,’ to now, ‘It’s a census checkpoint,’ kind of like a COVID checkpoint,” she said. “If you come past us or encounter us, we will run your name, so it’s become a checkpoint because of the urgency.”

The current political climate, from the court battles over a citizenship question (which the census does not ask) to the killing of George Floyd, only adds to the difficulty Taylor and other organizers face trying to get residents counted.

“There are a lot of things going on right now that give people the perfect opportunity to give you an excuse,” Taylor said. “Some people may lash out and say, ‘If this is the government, then I don’t want to have any dealings with that.’”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.

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