Make the census count where it matters most

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What comes around only once every decade, but can influence everything from where you vote to how much funding your child’s school gets to whether your streets and highways are properly maintained? The answer is the U.S. Census.

What comes around only once every decade, but can influence everything from where you vote to how much funding your child’s school gets to whether your streets and highways are properly maintained? The answer is the U.S. Census.

Yet, I don’t suppose most people are thinking about what they might be missing out on when they fail to return those census forms they receive in the mail. Well, you’d better be thinking about it because this time around, the stakes couldn’t be higher. That goes triple for people who reside in urban communities where the needs are greatest but federal funding typically falls short.

One reason that poorer communities get less funding is because, in past censuses, African-Americans and Latinos have been consistently undercounted – some estimate as many as 14 percent in the big cities were missed during the census of 2000.

Now before you go blaming the government for the miscount, you should know that during the last census, in some Illinois neighborhoods, fewer than 70 percent of households mailed back their census forms. And to think, 10 years ago, the economy was in way better shape than it is today, which is why it’s so important to end apathy now and get with the program.

An accurate head count is so important because when we are undercounted, federal allocations to local schools get cut. Undercount the number of people living in a particular voting district and that district could lose a congressional representative. In fact, Illinois lost a seat after the 2000 count. Undercount the number of people in need of social services and the amount of federal grant money to local agencies that are trying to help people in need can take a hit, too.

The census is the barometer the government uses to allocate more than $300 billion in federal spending each year. It also gives researchers important data about bank lending, income levels and educational achievement, and even influences decisions about where to build new schools and open new businesses. So, you’re not just a number; the census count has the power to change people’s lives for better – or not at all.

Census takers will be faced with new challenges this time around. The housing foreclosure crisis and the skyrocketing unemployment rate have displaced thousands of urban homeowners and dwellers, forcing them into homeless shelters, temporary housing and the homes of relatives. In major cities such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Miami, the economic crisis has hit African-Americans the hardest, which will make getting an accurate count an unprecedented challenge.

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