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Count Them In/ Mayor's Blessing a Curse?

Fighting fear and distrust to bring the census to the very neighborhoods where it's needed most.

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By Ben Joravsky

Over the last ten years, by one estimate, Cook County lost $384 million dollars in state and federal funds because residents didn't fill out their forms during the 1990 census. Ellisa Johnson and her allies--an ethnically and economically diverse group of representatives of city and suburban organizations--are trying to make sure the county doesn't lose that kind of money again. "The census is our greatest challenge," says Johnson, director of the Cook County board's Complete Count Committee. "It's simple--you have to fill out those census forms to get what we deserve."

Many of Johnson's allies are cage-rattling activists, so it's odd to see them getting wound up over what seems like a lot of dull number crunching. Yet they have the single-minded passion of true believers, radiating conviction and zeal as they plead their case to church, school, and community groups.

As they see it, nothing less than the economic well-being of the metropolitan area is at stake. They're concerned about congressional reapportionment, because a low count relative to the rest of the country might mean that the Chicago area will lose another district. But they're a lot more concerned about the allocation of state and federal funding. How much the city and county get to fight poverty, build bridges, run schools, install sewers, hire police, you name it--is all based on the census count.

During the last census the local effort to persuade people to turn in their forms was chaotic, confused, and unguided. There was no systematic effort to spread the word, and many communities were either apathetic about or ignorant of the consequences. The U.S. Census Bureau conservatively estimated the undercount in Chicago at 68,000 and the undercount in the county at 82,000. City and county estimates are at least double those figures.

It's hard to calculate exactly how much the undercount cost the city and county. According to a recent report by the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, a bipartisan planning group, at least $56 in federal funds were "distributed annually on a per capita basis in 1989. By 1999, the maximum estimate had grown to about $360 per person." So the commission estimates that Chicago lost somewhere between $112 million and $319 million in federal funds.

Whatever the loss, Cook County is likely to lose money this time around, too, because there's a direct correlation between low percentages of returned forms and poverty. According to NIPC, the biggest undercounts in the county have been in working-class or poor suburbs such as Ford Heights, Harvey, and Robbins. In contrast, most of the county's well-to-do suburbs--Wilmette, Winnetka, Kenilworth, Barrington, Glencoe--had almost no undercount. "Minorities and children were far more likely to be uncounted," NIPC's planners wrote. "The undercount rate for African-Americans was 5.7 percent, more than four times that for others."

Many observers worry that undercounts only exacerbate existing inequities between rich and poor. "It's all about getting your tax dollars coming back to the community," says Ana Maria Soto, regional census director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "People who have lived here longer, who feel more connected to the mainstream, understand this. They will fill out the forms, and their community benefits. But if you're new to the country, it's different."

She recalls a speech she recently delivered to an English class at Triton College: "There must have been 600 people there. I asked, 'How many people were here ten years ago?' Only ten hands went up. These people are refugees and immigrants, recent arrivals. They don't know about the census, and we have to teach them."

It's not an easy lesson to teach. The census is confusing. There are two forms. Most people receive the short one, which asks for the names and ages of people who live in the household. The longer and more controversial version, which goes to one out of six households, asks for a much wider range of information, including how much money each respondent makes.

People have until mid-April to mail back the forms. If they miss that deadline the census bureau sends enumerators to their homes to try to get the information. The process ends by July, and in the fall the formulas will be set for the next decade. "Our purpose is to encourage as many voluntary responses as we can so we aren't as dependent on the enumerators," says Johnson. "We'd like to get the response rate up to 80 percent."

So far she and her allies have been concentrating on what the bureau calls "hot tracts," census tracts in Uptown, Rogers Park, Pilsen, and other neighborhoods with high concentrations of recent immigrants. Up to 70 percent of the residents of these neighborhoods didn't send back their forms in 1990.

"A lot of people in our communities find the census intrusive," says Dale Asis, executive director of the Coalition of African, Asian, and Latino Immigrants of Illinois, an Uptown-based organization. "They bring a lot of fears from the old country. The comment from the Vietnamese community is that the old government only wanted them to fill out these sorts of forms to persecute them. It's hard to suppress that fear."

Latinos are also often undercounted, according to Jeryl Levin, executive director of the Illinois Ethnic Coalition. "We discovered the undercount two years ago when we put together our ethnic handbook," she says. "We were trying to establish how many people from each ethnic group live in the Chicago area. There were huge discrepancies between the information we got from the census bureau and the communities. That's when I realized this is a problem we need to address."

Two years ago Levin started working with Johnson to spread the word. "We found that it's very effective to go through religious leaders or community leaders because these are people that are trusted," says Levin. "If your minister tells you, you'll be more likely to fill it out."

They're also depending on help from schoolchildren. "We have coloring books that the children fill in explaining the need for the census," says Emma Mitchell, director of the Saint Joseph Headstart program in south-suburban Chicago Heights. "The children in turn tell mom or dad, and the word spreads."

Despite such appeals, many residents remain reluctant to reveal the kind of personal information the government wants to know on the long form. It consists of 12 pages of seemingly irrelevant questions, such as where you work and how you get there; where you live and how much you make, including investment returns; and how many flushing toilets, bathtubs, and showers your home has.

Anarchists, libertarians, and other antigovernment activists argue that the long form goes way beyond the original purpose of the census, which was to do a simple population count for congressional reapportionment. "It's against the U.S. Constitution," said libertarian Matt Beauchamp when he was on Chicago Tonight last week. He warned that the government might use the information in insidious ways. "As long as the information's there," he said, "the temptation is to use it."

Levin dismisses such criticism. "This information may look irrelevant, but it's not," she says. "They need to know how many toilets you have in order to make decisions about where to install sewer lines so your streets don't overflow with dark, smelly sludge."

Levin and the other census activists spend much of their time pleading with their listeners to have faith in the feds--even in the aftermath of Watergate, Iran contra, and other scandals in which government officials abused their power. "I understand the doubt, but I tell people that as far as we know the census confidentiality has never been breached," says Soto. "There's a law against it. People can go to jail for breaking that confidentiality. The census depends on keeping the trust. They're very scrupulous. They know if that trust is broken it may not be regained. At some point I have to trust this process. If I don't, how can I get involved at all?"

Mayor's Blessing A Curse

It's hard to imagine an Ed Kelly victory as a triumph for independent politics. After all, as Mayor Richard J. Daley's handpicked Park District boss, he battled Harold Washington as hard as aldermen Ed Burke and Ed Vrdolyak.

But that was then and this is now. And when Mayor Richard M. Daley came out for Alderman Gene Schulter in the race for 47th Ward Democratic committeeman, many independents--including U.S. representative Luis Gutierrez, former National Organization for Women president Lorna Brett, and gay activist Rick Garcia--rallied to Kelly's side. As one independent put it, "I'm for Kelly because the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

With help from independents, regulars, and Tribune columnist John Kass (who wrote a funny column mocking Schulter as Daley's lapdog), Kelly eked out a win in last week's election. "People saw me as the underdog, and everyone loves an underdog," says Kelly. "You should have seen it. Yuppies would come up to me when I was campaigning. I'm talking about young women, 30 years old, on their way to work. 'Oh, you're Ed Kelly,' they'd say. 'I wanted to meet you.' You should have seen the crowd at our election-night party--young, old, every nationality, every profession. Every one of them kissed me. Not shake hands, but kiss--the women, the guys, everybody. I had chills going up and down my spine. In all my years of politics I never had a moment like that."

In the aftermath, some independents see signs of hope. "It might be wishful thinking, but this may be the first step toward something big," says Victor Crown, publisher of Illinois Politics. "Let's face it, it hasn't been a very good time for Daley on the north side. Helen Shiller beat his candidate in the 46th Ward last year, Cynthia Soto beat his candidate for state rep., Dorothy Brown clobbers Pat Levar, and Kelly beats Schulter. Daley's arrogant. He wants to control everything. People are tired of that."

Kelly says many factors contributed to his victory. "The disloyalty issue was big," he says. "I gave Gene his start, and a lot of people, particularly the seniors, were upset when he turned against me."

As for the mayor, Kelly tries to be diplomatic. "I don't know why he turned against me, but I think it was a mistake. They brought in all these workers from other wards. The voters didn't like it. It's not a good idea to get involved in local races."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.

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