On a snowy Thursday a few weeks ago, the Oakwood Community Center at the corner of 38th Place and Vincennes Avenue in Bronzeville filled up with people in attendance for a free, public panel discussion on “The Power of the US Census in Black Communities.” The event was part of Community Grand Rounds, a relatively new outreach series focusing on improving health on the South Side, organized by the Center for Community Health & Vitality at the University of Chicago’s medical system. 

Dr. Doriane Miller, the center’s director and an internist at UChicago Medicine, made a few introductory remarks, during which she noted that, while it might seem a little surprising to connect the Census to health outcomes, she was working with a broad definition of health—“the presence of physical, mental, and social well-being, not simply the absence of disease.” 

A pamphlet put together by UofC medical students clearly laid out the connections between the Census and funding for health-related programs in Illinois. Medicaid and Medicare, for example, get some of the most money allocated using Census data—$312 and $70 billion, respectively—by calculating reimbursement levels based on state income and cost of practicing in a certain area. Even a seemingly small undercount can have significant results: according to a study by the Chicago Urban League, undercounting Illinois’s population by one percent means the state would lose $122 million each year in Medicaid funding. 

In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Illinois was undercounted by about half a percent. But undercounting doesn’t take place equally—the agency also found that, nationally, the Black population was undercounted by 2.1 percent, while the Hispanic population, as the Census Bureau refers to it, was undercounted by 1.5 percent. Renters, a group that sometimes serves as a stand-in for low-income people, were undercounted by 1.1 percent. 

Perhaps taking a cue from Miller’s point that health is not merely the absence of disease, Jasmine Gunn, one of the panelists, pointed to some of the ways that funding from the Census is tied to a range of other social welfare programs. Gunn works as a project manager at Claretian Associates, a community organization that develops and manages affordable housing in South Chicago. Claretian Associates uses Community Development Block Grant funding and rents to people using Section 8 vouchers—both programs whose funding is partly determined with Census data. 

“The demand for affordable housing…I would call it a crisis. The lack of units that are available—they just don’t exist,” Gunn said. “If you fill out the Census, there will be more funds allocated to nonprofit [organizations] that are trying to build affordable housing…. But if you don’t fill out the Census, the money that they allocate for your community won’t be correct.” 

Gunn also pointed out that plenty of businesses use information from the Census to decide whether to set up shop in a particular neighborhood, or to find investment for their business: “People giving out business loans, the first thing they have to do [is] a market analysis of the customers…. That profile comes out of the Census data.” Her point was part of a larger theme that oriented much of the evening’s discussion: economic health in majority-Black communities, particularly in a part of the city that’s steadily been losing its Black population over the last few decades. 

One of the other panelists, Cassiopeia Uhuru, is the co-founder of The Black Mall, an online directory and newsletter that encourages buying from Black-owned businesses. “It’s why it’s really important for us to be counted in the Census… with us being counted, we actually have the chance for more dollars to be circulated or disseminated into our communities and to help with our communities,” Uhuru said. 

Melvin R. Thompson, the executive director of the Endeleo Institute in Washington Heights, echoed Uhuru’s point. He pointed to a concrete example of a new business being created in a Black community: this year, Thompson’s organization, which is part of the powerful Trinity United Church of Christ, plans to open Cafe DuBois, a coffee shop at the corner of 95th Street and Harvard Avenue. (W.E.B. DuBois was the first Black person to get his PhD from Harvard University.)

It appeared attendees of the panel were already grappling with issues relevant to the Census as well as broader social, economic, and political struggles in poor communities and communities of color. During the question-and-answer session following the panel discussion, the conversation circled back to the Census. One audience member pointed out that people who are incarcerated are counted by the Census as part of the population in the area where the prison is located. “They’re being counted downstate and in Statesville… they get counted down there, and they’re getting dollars for that,” she said. “We need to be the ones that say, ‘No, you need to put that money back in.’”

A 2010 report from the Prison Gerrymandering Project showed that, even though sixty percent of Illinois’s prison population is from Chicago, ninety percent of those people are incarcerated downstate. In one rural county, the prison population is twenty-five percent of the total. Over the last decade, state Representative La Shawn K. Ford, whose 8th District includes much of Austin and some western suburbs, has repeatedly introduced a bill that would count prisoners using their last previous address before they were incarcerated. The latest version, introduced in 2018, is in committee, and has fifty-nine cosponsors.

The Weekly’s reporting on the 2020 Census is supported by a grant from the McCormick Foundation, administered by the Chicago Independent Media Alliance.

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Christian Belanger is a senior editor at the Weekly and a staff writer at the Hyde Park Herald. He last covered a traveling exhibit of community-made media, currently on view at University of Chicago art centers.

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