SPRINGFIELD — The loss of two congressional seats and billions of dollars in federal funding are only two of the problems facing Illinois if it cannot get all of its residents to respond to the 2020 census.
Although the official count does not start for another year, the federal government and state and local governments are ramping up their efforts to make the next census as accurate as possible.
Activists, lawmakers and community leaders around the state, meanwhile, are fighting to address all the factors that might contribute to an undercount.
The federal census is conducted every 10 years to count population and demographics for every household in the U.S. The data is used to reapportion congressional seats and distribute more than $800 billion in funds for more than 300 federal programs, according to a study by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.
In fiscal year 2016, for example, Illinois received more than $34.3 billion in federal funds for 55 federal spending programs guided directly by data from the 2010 census.
This is on top of dozens of state programs that use census data to appropriate money and services, including but not limited to local government unit boundaries and redistricting, tax credits, agency appropriations, and school and infrastructure needs.
“It’s everything from schools to highways getting paved to the information McDonald’s needs to build another franchise,” said Jay Young, executive director of nonpartisan Common Cause Illinois, which works on redistricting and election reform as well as census outreach.
“If you don’t get counted, you don’t exist, and I (the federal government) don’t need to put a qualified health center in your community if you don’t exist. I don’t need to boost police presence if you don’t exist,” Young said.
The 2010 Census
Illinois’ initial response rate to the 2010 census was 80.7 percent, which puts it in the middle of the pack compared to other states.
Census workers had to follow up either by mail or in person to get responses from the other 19.3 percent, and an unspecified number of those people did not respond at all.
While the exact undercount number is not clear, “it is a general consensus that Illinois was historically undercounted during the 2010 Census efforts and data seems to support this theory,” according to a November 2018 report by the Illinois Complete Count Commission, a panel of elected officials from all over the state created to help with census outreach.
For every one person missed, according to the George Washington study, Illinois lost $953 in federal dollars.
In fiscal year 2015 alone, according to the same study, Illinois lost $123 million in federal funding for every 1 percent of the population not counted in 2010.
Stacked up over the years, the Complete Count Commission’s report said, those numbers amount to “the forfeiture of billions of dollars in federal assistance that aid in the support of children, veterans, senior citizens, and middle- and low-income families, as well as ... schools, healthcare facilities and infrastructure.”
But federal dollars are not the only loss Illinois faces with a census undercount.
The census also determines state representation in Congress. Every 10 years, the federal government doles out congressional seats based on the relative size of each state’s population.
Illinois has lost a congressional seat every decade since the 1930s, falling to its current number of 18. With the estimated state population declining over the last five years, however, Illinois is all but guaranteed to lose another congressional seat after 2020.
But the state also faces the loss of an additional seat – not because of people leaving, but because of people not responding to the census.
“We think we’re so close to losing two that it’s within the margin that will be controlled by the potential undercount,” Young said.
Election Data Services, a consulting firm that analyzes congressional seat changes using the Census Bureau’s complicated formula for reapportionment, issued a report in December 2018 backing this up.
Assuming the loss of one seat already, Illinois is holding onto the 435th Congressional seat by a mere 25,149 to 53,598 people, according to EDS.
That’s less than half of 1 percent of the state’s population, a number that, based on county-by-county response rates, could reasonably be undercounted in the next census.
Illinois’ congressional maps will have to be redrawn after the census to account for one lost seat. If a second seat is lost, it would require even greater changes decided through a deeply partisan redistricting process carried out by state lawmakers that always favors the party in power.
All three branches of the state government are currently controlled by Democrats.
Illinois would also lose two electoral votes, weakening its strength in future presidential elections.