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As Census Day Arrives, State And Local Officials Worry Some Communities Will Be Under-Counted

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Today is Census Day, and state and local authorities are reminding people why it's more important than ever to make sure you are counted.

"If we fail to count everyone in Illinois, it could result in the state losing over $195 million per year in federal funds for every 1% we undercount ourselves," Gov. JB Pritzker said Wednesday afternoon.

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting the Census count, and officials already have pushed back the response deadline by two weeks to Aug. 14.

With representation in Congress and billions of dollars of federal funding on the line, Cook County worries some communities could be hurt.

"It's more important than every for every resident in every community to be represented in the Census," County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said. "In the midst of this health crisis, we recognize the importance of these federal dollars. We must ensure everyone is counted, so that our communities can rebuild and recover from this crisis."

Census notices have been going out in the mail for weeks, and if you've already received your questionnaire, you can fill it out and mail it back, but Preckwinkle also noted people can fill out their Census forms online or by phone.

The Census has hotlines in 14 languages:

The governor noted the Census Bureau has temporarily suspended in-person interviews and field operations to help slow the spread of the virus.

Pritzker said the best thing people can do to help doctors, nurses, first responders, teachers, grocery store workers, deliver drivers, and everyone else on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus is to stay home and fill out Census form online.

When you respond, you'll tell the Census Bureau where you live as of April 1, 2020, and include everyone who usually lives and sleeps in your home.

Another unintended consequence of the coronavirus pandemic is that college towns could take a financial hit for the next decade, because the 2020 Census is underway. Students are supposed to report where they living April 1. Normally, that would be at school, but with universities switching to remote learning, many students are no longer in their college towns.

Families filling out Census questionnaires shouldn't count college age children who normally would be away at school if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. Those students should fill out their own forms online.

Marilyn Sanders, the Census Bureau's regional director for Chicago, said the response rate in Illinois so far is 39.4%, slightly ahead of the national rate of 36.2%. In Cook County, the response rate is 34.4%, and in Chicago the response rate is 29.5%.

"We invite and encourage you to tell your friends that everyone counts, and it is extremely important that we don't lose this moment, and be counted," Sanders said.

Census data is used to determine how many representatives each state has in Congress, how many electoral votes each state gets in presidential elections, and how many federal funds are distributed to various communities.

Nationwide, the Census could fail to count up to 4 million people; with African Americans, Latinos, and children under age 5 most likely to be overlooked, according to estimates by the Urban Institute.

"The impact of the Census means a lot to all communities, but the funding and political power at stake mean a little more to the traditionally under-represented. The federal dollars allocated based on their responses are crucial in improving their neighborhoods, and their access to resources in these neighborhoods," said Christina Vera, community engagement lead for Cook County's Census team.

James Rudyk, executive director of the Northwest Side Housing Center, said immigrants in particular have been under-represented in the Census, because many undocumented immigrants fear law enforcement will get the information.

Rudyk said those fears have been heightened by President Donald Trump's bid to add a citizenship question to the Census. The president abandoned his effort after the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the question from the Census, and Rudyk said volunteers who have reached out to immigrants to fill out the questionnaire are assuring them it doesn't include a citizenship question.

"Once we are able to get them to believe that, and understand that, then we're helping them fill that out. So that's a huge burden and hurdle that is unnecessary, but unfortunate as a result of the Trump administration's response to immigrants," he said.

Participating in the Census is required by law, to ensure a complete and accurate count of everyone living in the U.S.

With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting the count, Preckwinkle said the county is encouraging the federal government to push back the Dec. 31 deadline for the Census Bureau to send the president the official counts that will be used to draw up congressional districts and state legislative districts. The deadline is required by law, and a change would require an act of Congress.

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