Complete Census Count Critical for Rural Communities in Illinois

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last Wednesday, I had the honor of addressing the Illinois Governor Rural Affairs Council (GRAC) in partnership with Anita Banjeri of Forefront’s Democracy Initiative in regard to the 2020 Census. Mary Ellen and I have posted in the past about national concerns on administering the 2020 Census, its high stakes for Illinois, and how to integrate it into your classroom this fall.

Anita and I shared some of these lessons with the GRAC, and received a favorable reaction from Council members, including Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti (see picture below). A few highlights are particularly relevant for civics teachers serving in schools outside of the Chicago area.


As mentioned in a previous post, Illinois is speckled with hard-to-count communities (HTC’s) outside of Chicago, including Rockford, DeKalb, Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Springfield, Metro East (suburban St. Louis), Carbondale, and Pulaski and Alexander counties at the state’s southern tip. While HTC’s are heavily concentrated in urban counties (71% of the HTC population), 79% of HTC counties are rural.

HTC’s skew nonwhite, young (the early childhood population in particular), and poor, the latter of which rural populations show a greater propensity towards. However, there is a significant Black population in the rural South, Hispanic population in the rural Southwest, and Native Americans living on remote reservations. Other HTC rural populations lie in Appalachia and among migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Lt. Gov. Sanguinetti mentioned Arcola, IL, as an example of a rural community with a large Hispanic population and an Amish population, both likely qualifying as HTC.

This leads back to the technological challenges presented by the 2020 Census as the Bureau moves towards a primarily online system. The vast majority of the population will be prompted to complete the Census online, and rural households are less likely to have broadband access at home than their urban counterparts (21% without versus 13%; see graph at right). The Census Bureau is poised to provide paper alternatives to targeted communities with limited broadband access, but this methodology has not been tested and thus possesses significant risk for contributing to an undercount in rural communities.

At the GRAC meeting, I shared data on projected population growth and decline by county in Illinois since the last Census, where 89 of the state’s 102 counties have shrunk in population, all of them outside of metropolitan Chicago with the exception of Lake County. In a separate presentation, we learned that while Illinois’ metropolitan population has grown by 4% since 2000, its rural population has shrunk by 5%.

Much attention must be devoted to ensuring a complete count in Illinois come Census Day in April 2020. Lt. Gov. Sanguanetti, for one, offered to record public service announcements in both English and Spanish to encourage the state’s residents to fully participate. This is welcome, as is the funding appropriated ($1.5 million in FY 2019) by the Illinois General Assembly for Census outreach.

The short-term strategy is one of “hold(ing) on to what we got,” but moving forward, we must do more to reverse rural population loss. To this end, Dr. Norman Walzer of Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies presented a number of strategies, including incentivizing young families to move to rural counties and marketing them as high-quality, lower-cost places to live. Engaging students in inquiries of this nature sets up opportunities for informed action in rural schools and communities throughout Illinois.

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