By Mark Hertvik
Residents of the West Side’s Austin neighborhood believe the community was undercounted in 2000, and are working to gain full representation for their neighborhood in the 2010 census.
The 2000 census counted 117,527 people living inside the city-defined borders of Austin, representing 4.1 percent of Chicagoans. Community activist Malcolm Crawford says this number is inaccurate, and estimates Austin’s true population to be as much as 20 percent higher because the population is wary of being counted.
“[There is] a lack of information, a lack of understanding of what the census is,” said Crawford, whose nonprofit Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center is involved in promoting census awareness in Austin. “A lot of our people are in precarious situations” and don’t like to talk to outsiders or the government, he said.
Crawford and the Sankofa Center are among a plethora of nonprofit and public-private organizations trying to convince Chicagoans to cooperate with the 2010 census. The federal census occurs once every 10 years.
Crawford said the Sankofa Center is involved in an alliance of “churches, block clubs and politicians” to mobilize Austin. He has attended several meetings, and he shares information with guests at Sankofa.
Among the benefits they hope Chicago communities will reap from participating are: increased political representation, a greater share of federal funds, and temporary but lucrative census jobs ($18.25/hour on the West Side).
One of the organizations participating in the drive is the Westside NAACP, the chapter of the national NAACP that includes Austin, East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Humboldt Park.
Westside NAACP Vice President Ray Easley estimates the 2000 census missed 20,000 people in Austin. He said whether Austin is properly counted in the census has far-reaching effects on the neighborhood’s local economy.
“The census is very important … from a point of view of political structure,” Easley said. “But entities like grocery stores look at the census as well” when choosing where to open new stores.
Scott Allard is an associate professor of social services administration at the University of Chicago. Allard, who is doing fieldwork on the census, said concerns about the census in Austin are valid.
“Austin is definitely one of the neighborhoods where they have an undercount and where [the census] is targeting residents,” he said.
Allard said Austin fits the profile of an undercounted neighborhood, with higher than average rates of poverty, illiteracy and homelessness, as well as one of the city’s largest ex-prisoner populations.
Thomas Jones, an assistant commissioner with the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services who does work at the Austin Satellite Senior Center, agrees the West Side neighborhood was “woefully undercounted” in the last census, blaming it on fluid living situations.
“We have a lot of people who don’t reside where they say they reside and don’t want to be counted,” Jones said. “You might have 10 people living where there are supposed to be four people … they don’t want people to know they have people who aren’t on their lease.”
“A lot of people just don’t trust the government, and thus don’t send [census] papers in,” he said.
And that, Jones said, hurts Austin.
“Population determines the amount of federal dollars that go to a given area,” he said, and not responding to the census costs the Austin community badly needed aid. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, $400 billion in federal funds is at stake.
Jones said he’s helping run an awareness campaign out of the senior center by distributing flyers and encouraging people to cooperate.
“People just don’t send their papers in,” he said, and he believes more Austin residents would participate in the census if they were better informed.
Allard said although the census is sometimes adjusted to offset the undercount, the adjustments are largely academic. He said the original, low set of numbers is still used for redistricting and apportioning federal funds.
Chicago sued the Census Bureau in 1990 because it lost so many federal dollars from undercounting, Allard said.
Allard will host a conference Feb. 26 at the University of Chicago. The event will bring academics, community groups and officials together to discuss how to get the most accurate count, especially with the recent spike in foreclosures and evictions causing migrations and more unorthodox living situations.
Allard also credits the Census Bureau with reforms undertaken since the 1990 lawsuit was filed, including the Complete Count Committee initiative. He said the 2000 census went better than in 1990, and he has high hopes for outreach this year.
“The Census Bureau can do a good job following up in neighborhoods where response rates are low,” he said.
The Census Bureau was not available for comment.
The Census Bureau Web site offers a press kit for organizations interested in working as partners. It also displays an online sample of the census form, which it calls “one of the shortest forms in history – 10 Questions in 10 Minutes.”