Community Organizations Work To Boost Metro East Census Count In Final Weeks
There are about five weeks left before the U.S. Census will wrap up its nationwide headcount, after a judge in California blocked the Trump administration’s plan to end the count a month early.
The uncertainty in when the census count will end has complicated outreach efforts from Metro East community organizations seeking to increase local participation.
“They have tried to handicap us by cutting off a month, but we will prevail, and we will do what we have to, to get these numbers up,” said Yolanda Crochrell, executive director of the Quad City Community Development Center in Madison County.
Throughout the end of August and all of September, her organization has hosted or been a part of different events, like food giveaways, in Madison County designed to increase the number of census responses in the region. Crochrell now has another month to host events that will increase those numbers.
The census count determines a wide range of federal and state government funding and services for the next decade.
“With the cutoff at such an abrupt moment, it forces us to cram a lot of activities or events together,” Crochrell said. “I’m concerned we won’t have enough time to get the percentage that we need.”
Crochrell focused on increasing responses in Alton, Madison, Venice, Granite City and other parts of Madison County with harder-to-count populations. Her goal is for Madison County to end with an overall self-response percentage of 75% or 80%. The county’s current self-response rate is 74%.
The Quad City Community Development Center received funding from a grant from Madison County to increase census engagement this year. When the pandemic hit, the county transferred all engagement responsibilities to the center, Crochrell said.
Local organizations driving responses
The center focused on using existing relationships with local nonprofits and others, like Venice Township, to spread the word about the census.
“A lot of the hard-to-count populations come to the township for various services,” said Dewanda Crochrell, a census coordinator with Quad City, who is Yolanda’s sister-in-law. “We knew they had monthly giveaways hosted by the St. Louis Food Bank.”
Crochrell explained they wanted to provide educational information about the census’ importance early so that residents would be primed to respond. But residents weren’t responding as well as they had hoped, she said.
“They would say, ‘Yeah, we completed it’ and keep on going,” Crochrell said. “I said we’re gonna have to do something else. We’re going to have to get some type of insurance the census questionnaire is being completed.”
The organization shifted to the idea of a raffle, in which residents could win $500 if they completed the census and submitted a slip with their contact information and census confirmation number to red boxes distributed throughout the community, she said.
“The money was a motivator,” Crochrell said. “At these times it’s a hard time for a lot of our seniors, our people of color. We’re starting to get more of a response because of a desire and a need that can be met by completing the census questionnaire.”
At events, the center set up laptops where staff members help residents respond to the census questionnaire online.
The center’s tactics focused on building incentives for people to respond, but other organizers used more direct approaches.
“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,” said Stephanie Taylor, president of Community Development Sustainable Solutions, an East St. Louis nonprofit. “If you come past us or encounter us, we will run your name, so it’s become a checkpoint because of the urgency.”
In other cases, her organization will travel to residents’ homes to help them respond.
“That’s how serious it is,” Taylor said.
Illinois had always planned to rely on community organizations to boost census counts in especially hard-to-reach areas. The state awarded nearly $20 million in census grants in 2019.
“Part of the census initiative has to do with using trusted messengers,” Taylor said. “We knew from the onset that individuals in and outside our community do not open doors to strangers.”
Most of the planned engagement centered on in-person events in the lead-up and after counting began in mid-March.
“After the pandemic it had to change, because we could no longer do direct engagement activities as originally planned,” Dewanda Crochrell said.
Crochrell’s organization shifted to contactless events like drive-thru giveaways of food or other essential items.
The coronavirus pandemic created issues for Taylor, too. She said some of the businesses and organizations where she had been canvassing no longer wanted her workers on their property for safety reasons.
Taylor said she needed to get creative in finding especially hard-to-count residents in her community.
“We’re following emergency trucks with food services,” she said. “People that must go to the aid office and renew their benefits, we’re standing outside across the street from the aid office.”
Taylor said she also ran into barriers with people who were weary of anything associated with the government, especially after the killing of George Floyd.
“Some people may lash out and say, ‘If this is the government, then I don’t want to have any dealings with that,’” she said. “There are a lot of things going on right now that give people the perfect opportunity to give you an excuse.”
Consequences of the count
Census counts are used to calculate how much funding a locality receives from federal and state governments, as well as the state's congressional representation. The data also determines how some grant funding and other programs are distributed to communities.
“Our city needs funding. Our summer camps and programs here for our youth need funding,” Yolanda Crochrell said. “A child out of school is a child that’s not eating in this community.”
She said Madison and Venice are communities that need many of the same resources East St. Louis does, but they’re passed over.
“Usually they give funding and grants to East St. Louis before they give it Madison and Venice,” Crochrell said. “Everybody looks over us.”
For Taylor, the count represents what resources the area will get in the next decade.
And right now it’s not looking good. East St. Louis and Venice have self-response rates around 45%, more than 10 percentage points lower than their final 2010 rates.
“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,” Taylor said.
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