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Census Champions Ensuring McLean County Counts

Two women standing side-by-side wearing 2020 Census t-shirts to promote making sure every McLean County resident is counted.
Colleen Reynolds
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WGLT
Holly Ambuehl of Illinois Partners for Human Service and Alyssa Cooper of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission show off their McLean County Counts! T-shirts designed and supplied by the Town of Normal as part of its communication outreach plan.

Filling out the 2020 Census should be something people wear like a badge of honor, sort of like the “I Voted” stickers people sport after they’ve cast their ballots.

That was the sentiment from panelists Monday night at a League of Women Voters of McLean County panel discussion, The 2020 Census: Why Should We Care?

Alyssa Cooper of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission, who is leading the McLean County Complete Count effort, said more than 70 outreach events are planned to make sure every person is counted, including every newborn and young child. Parents and adults with young children often don’t realize they need to include all children who live with them full time or at least most of the time.

Cooper said about $675 billion is allocated each year using Census data for everything from road funding, schools, emergency services, health care, housing and support for veterans. It’s estimated that every person not counted represents an average loss of $1,000 to $1,500 in federal money.

During the 2010 Census, the countywide response rate in McLean County was 75%, with the lowest response in the 61790 ZIP code representing an area around Illinois State University. Cooper explained students living in the dorms will automatically be counted, so the Town of Normal and Illinois State University officials are targeting heavy outreach to students living off-campus. 

“We know the ISU population has grown significantly, so if we don’t count those students—well, we have a lot to lose,” Cooper said.

People from other countries should be counted if they are living and sleeping most of the time at a U.S. residence as of April 1, considered national Census Day. That includes:

  • Legal permanent residents
  • Students here on student visas
  • Foreign diplomats and embassy staff
  • Other foriegn citizens who reside here, regardless of their legal status

Myths and Misperceptions

The Census Bureau is battling myths and misperceptions that may have some people suspicious about revealing information.

However, the Census Bureau is forbidden from sharing information with any other federal agency.

Holly and Mark
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
/
WGLT
Holly Ambuehl of Illinois Partners for Human Service and Regional School Superintendent Mark Jontry.

“It can’t be FOIA’d (revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request). It cannot be shared with law enforcement. It cannot be shared at all, and that’s really important that people understand when they’re working with groups that might have a true fear of sharing their information,” said Holly Ambuehl of Illinois Partners for Human Service, an advocacy group representing more than 800 human service organizations across the state.

Snowbirds who flee Illinois for warmer climates during the winter are also a hard-to-reach group.

The panel urged the McLean County League of Women Voters to reach out to that demographic which tends to make up a large percentage of its membership base. The group was urged to share social media posts including videos posted on the US Census Bureau’s YouTube channel.

Regional School Superintendent Mark Jontry said the 2020 Census has a huge impact on funding for critical school programs such as Title 1 grants, which provide funding for schools with a high percentage of low-income students along with supporting students with disabilities.

Census information also influences money for school lunch programs, rural broadband access, and support for high-mobility schools in which students come in and out often, which is an issue in McLean County, according to Jontry.

Data from the Census Bureau was used to funnel $7 million in Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) money into the region. Jontry said the money can be used to provide opportunities and financial aid for high school students to develop needed workforce skills.

According to Jontry, the Census Bureau is doing a great job of providing grade-level appropriate lessons so students can understand the 2020 Census.

“It allows teachers to use lessons that the kids will understand what the importance is to go home and tell mom and dad or grandma and grandpa, whoever the caregiver is, ‘Hey we need to fill out the census,” he said.

Jontry also pointed out Illinois is in danger of losing one or possibly two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives due to the state’s declining population. All the more reason, he said, that it is so crucial for every person to be counted.

“If we don’t do a good job of counting, I think a second seat is in play,” he suggested. “From the school side, no matter what side of the aisle you fall on, our representatives that we reach out to understand the issues schools are dealing with. They set politics aside when there’s advocacy around an issue, our legislators are listening and going to the Department of (Education) or whatever agency it is to get something fixed if we’re having an issue.”

Letters Coming Soon

Illinois residents can expect to receive a letter in the mail after March 12, asking to fill out the 2020 Census form online. It explains the law requires a response and without one, the Census Bureau will need to send an interviewer to collect answers in person.

That letter will be followed with a second message, then by a reminder postcard, and two more communications by mail including one containing a hard copy of the census form. May 1 will trigger the start of in-person surveyors calling on individual residences.

“The No. 1 way for us to have an accurate count is through self response,” said Ken Young from the Census Bureau. He said the agency is reaching for a goal of receiving more than 80% of the census forms online, via phone or from the mail. However, he pointed out rural residents who have a P.O. Box will not receive a Census Bureau letter or mailing. He said to avoid a knock on the door, go to the agency’s website.

Illinois is still hiring census workers, and Young said students who want to spend their summer doing census work should apply now because every employee undergoes fingerprinting and a background check. Processing an application takes time.

"We also prefer neighbors counting neighbors,” he added, suggesting retirees consider the option estimated to pay $20.50 an hour in McLean County.

While the state has met its target for census takers to date, Young points out the agency is facing challenges filling categories such as those who speak certain languages or can accomodate someone with a hearing or cognitive disability. You can apply online.

For more information about the McLean County 2020 Census efforts, visit the McLean County Hub.

People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.

Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.
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