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Illinois Grants Money To Community Groups To Spur Census Participation

The intersection of Collinsville and St. Louis Avenues in East St. Louis is where a mob of white rioters first gathered before they rampaged through the city, seeking out and killing black residents.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The intersection of Collinsville and St. Louis avenues in East St. Louis. The city is one place in Illinois with many "hard-to-count" census tracts.

BELLEVILLE — The 2020 census headcount will have wide-ranging implications for the state of Illinois and communities in the Metro East. The state could lose congressional seats and federal money, and some downstate cities could lose their home-rule status after the decennial headcount, which begins in April.

These high stakes spurred Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritkzer and the state Legislature to dedicate $29 million to counting hard-to-reach communities; $20 million is for grants that go to 30 local community organizations across the state tasked with ensuring accurate counts. 

“It’s essentially to throw events, hand outreach materials to encourage people to get out and get counted,” said Shannon Anderson, a program manager at Teens Against Killing Everywhere. The East St. Louis-based organization focused on nonviolence programs in the city received a $330,000 grant.

The grant money was designed to fund grassroots organizations with people at the ground level motivating their communities to respond to the census, said Oswaldo Alvarez, co-coordinator of the Illinois Census Office.

“The hard-to-count communities that we’re trying to reach respond well when the messenger is a trusted messenger,” Alvarez said.

Who gets the grant money?

The organizations that receive grant funding already have strong ties to the areas they serve and can distribute portions of their funding to other local organizations working on census outreach, Alvarez said. It’s like a hub and spoke, where an organization, like TAKE, organizes and leads other groups in the local outreach effort. 

“We’re working with other organizations and delegating tasks,” Anderson said. “It’s not completely on the regional intermediaries to make it happen. It’s definitely a team effort.”

TAKE has an idea of whom they will support, but Anderson said she would not share the organizations’ names because nothing has been finalized yet. 

This is the first time the state has had a dedicated census office working on these issues, Alvarez said. An accurate headcount is one thing the governor and state legislators have focused on, said Marishonta Wilkerson, co-coordinator of the Illinois Census Office.

“There’s no other state in this country that has made such an investment for the census on a per-capita basis,” she said.

Hard-to-count areas

In the Metro East, TAKE is tasked with community outreach in St. Clair, Clinton, Jersey, Calhoun, Monroe and Washington counties. The majority of the region the group serves is rural. St. Clair County alone has 21 hard-to-reach census tracts.

“The top hard-to-count populations are people without cell phone plans, non-family households, households that don’t have any internet access at all, or there are a lot of rental housing,” Wilkerson said.  

Anderson adds that poverty, lack of transportation and general distrust of the government are other factors that stop people from wanting to complete the census.  

This is the first time grant funding of this nature has been distributed ahead of the census in Illinois.

“The way that we’re serving the counties is brand new, and the outreach efforts being broken down by community is brand new,” Anderson said.

Time to be counted

In the lead-up to April 1, when the count officially begins, TAKE will be working to spread the word about the census and how to complete it.

Related: Key dates for the 2020 census

“Basically advertising for the census before it’s actually time to be counted,” Anderson said. “Just to get it on people's minds and express how important it is.”

People need to hear about the importance of the census between five and seven times before they will take action and complete it, Alvarez said.

“The more they know what the stakes are, the more likely people are to go out and actually complete the census,” Alvarez said.

Once the count begins, organizing efforts will shift to providing places where people can respond to the census, like setting up computers and tablets in public spaces.

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

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