October 27, 2020
“Champaign County residents should know their Census form is important because it increases the power of our local communities to provide the resources that residents deserve.” – RPC Planner Gabe Lewis
The decennial U.S. Census came to an end in October across the country, with the RPC finding ways to engage with Champaign County residents throughout 2020 in order to collect responses. RPC Planner Gabe Lewis served as coordinator for those efforts, leading a group that included Planning & Community Development Director Rita Morocoima-Black, Planner Sam Stewart, and former RPC interns Audrey Dombro, Destin Lembelembe, and Ana Mendoza.
Gabe’s team participated in numerous events designed to encourage people to fill out their Census forms—while also dealing with challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this Q&A, we talk to Gabe about the Census process and his team’s tremendous work in 2020 to make sure Champaign County was represented as accurately as possible.
Q: Leading efforts to collect Census data probably presents a number of challenges already, but then you had to deal with a pandemic on top of those. What were some of those challenges that you and your team encountered throughout the year, and how did the pandemic change your plans?
A: “The biggest challenge was not being able to help people complete their Census forms in person during the spring and summer months. Last winter we ordered tablets and thank-you gifts while hiring multilingual staff to enable and encourage people to fill out their Census forms. We created a Census hub at the Brookens Center and planned to be available at locations where people travel in the community to help them fill out their forms. However, we had to dismiss the bilingual interns that we had hired and close the Brookens Census hub in March three days after the Census form opened due to the pandemic.
“The RPC leads the Champaign County Area Complete Count Committee (CCC)—and we all had to get a little creative. Since we could not meet with people in person, we created and installed yard signs with QR codes, phone numbers, and websites to remind people to fill out their Census forms. We pushed daily messages on the 2020 Central Illinois Census Facebook and Twitter pages and other social media channels and used memes and multilingual messages to appeal to a wider audience. We also included reminder flyers and Census-themed placemats and books in food distribution packets for the RPC’s Early Childhood Education Program and local school districts to remind people to complete their forms.”
Q: How exactly is the RPC involved in the collecting of Census data and what happens to that data once it’s been collected?
A: “The RPC serves as a data resource and the local Census data clearinghouse for Champaign County communities and coordinates efforts to get people counted during each decennial Census through the Complete Count Committee. Once state pandemic restrictions were eased during the summer, the RPC followed safety protocols to help people complete their Census forms in person. RPC staff had tablets and WiFi hotspots available to allow people to complete their Census forms online. We also had the technical expertise and multilingual skills to address questions that people had when completing their forms.
“Now that the Census form has closed, the U.S. Census Bureau will process all of the responses and will start releasing data in 2021. The Census Bureau must run differential privacy programs to ensure confidentiality so that responses for a neighborhood cannot be tracked back to a single household. Once the Census data is released, the RPC will work with Champaign County communities to help disseminate the information.”
Q: What were some of the different ways you and your team went about getting Champaign County residents to fill out their Census forms?
A: “When the State of Illinois eased pandemic restrictions over the summer, our team took safety precautions to work in-person with residents to help them fill out their Census forms. At first, we worked in outdoor locations as much as possible and sanitized tablets after each use. We ordered 2020 Census and RPC branded masks both for staff to wear and to give away to residents who completed their forms. We also ordered and distributed RPC/Census sanitizer bottles. Both items were very popular with residents.
“The RPC Census team worked with other RPC programs to be available to get Census forms filled out by clients, such as LIHEAP in the Brookens Gym and meeting parents outside Early Childhood Education Centers at pickup times. We worked with all our member agencies as well as CCC partners and businesses to be present at outdoor locations during the summer and fall with tablets and thank-you gifts. This includes the Champaign and Urbana farmer’s markets; the Douglass Branch, Urbana Free, Mahomet, and Tolono Public Libraries; University of Illinois Light the Night; Rantoul Clean-Up Day; Savoy Walmart; and the Kickapoo Rail Trail in St. Joseph.
“Spanish assistance was available at locations like El Progreso grocery store and Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park, and French assistance was available at Best of Africa Food Store. We also secured a space at Washington Park in Champaign outside a University of Illinois COVID-19 testing tent to reach students, a typically undercounted population. The RPC alone offered Census help at 46 locations throughout Champaign County.“
Q: Why is the collecting of Census data so important and how does getting as accurate a count as possible benefit Champaign County?
A: “A study from George Washington University estimates that Illinois will lose $1,400 per person per year in federal funding for each person who is uncounted in the 2020 Census, and that adds up until the next Census is completed in 10 years. Census counts tell the federal government how many people are living in our communities and how much funding needs to be distributed to these communities from 55 programs, including education, social services, transportation, and health care. Census counts also determine how many Congresspersons each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives, while also providing data for states and communities to draw legislative boundaries.
“Planners rely on accurate Census data to determine where people live, what services they need, and the people most in need of those services. Champaign County residents should know their Census form is important because it increases the power of our local communities to provide the resources that residents deserve.”
Q: Anything else you’d like to say about the Census count this year in Champaign County or the process in general?
A: “I will remember the 2020 Census for the rest of my life, not only because of the challenges faced, but because of the incredibly resilient and cooperative work done by RPC staff and the CCC agencies.”