Dollars and Census: Will more South Siders march to the mailbox in 2010?

(Claire Zhou)

For most of the boys and girls participating in “March to the Mailbox” day, the Census 2010 one-size-fits-all T-shirts and hats are plainly oversized. Some can barely see over their signs, while others juggle fliers and census paraphernalia. Small as some of these volunteers may be–the youngest at just nine months old–their voices ring loud and clear as they march the streets of Englewood.

“Census count, twen-ty-ten!” they shout. “This is for everyone to be in!”

The kids are instructed to place fliers in every mailbox, except those belonging to houses that are boarded up or vacant (of which there are many). Every so often the cheers of these young activists are drowned out by the sound of police sirens just a few blocks away–indirect reminders of why the 2010 Census is so important to these Englewood residents, and why community organizations have taken such an active interest in the census this year.

“March to the Mailbox” day, which took place last Saturday, was the joint effort of New Birth Church of God In Christ and Teamwork Englewood’s “Complete Count” committee to remind residents to return their census forms. Since autumn of last year, Teamwork Englewood has launched an aggressive campaign to disseminate accurate information about the census and to prevent Englewood from being undercounted.

In 2000, only between 32 and 45 percent of Englewood households returned their census forms by mail, a figure even lower than the alarming 58 percent overall return rate of the city of Chicago.

“We saw the numbers after 2000 and recognized that in our community, the response was less than 50 percent. So when you equate the amount of money that was lost, the amount of resources that we did not have available in the last ten years, the condition of the neighborhood and what a difference that money could have made, it’s just common sense,” said Pastor Willard Payton of New Birth Church. “We have to get involved. We’ve got to make it better for the future, for this community.”

The census, which is taken every ten years by the U.S. Census Bureau, is used to determine how over $400 billion of federal funding is allocated among state and city governments. Moreover, it gauges a neighborhood’s need for community centers, roads, schools, and other public facilities and services, helping the local government to make important planning decisions.

In order to counter the misconceptions and fears surrounding the census, a citywide grassroots movement of volunteers has arisen to assist the regional census bureau. In Englewood, as in much of the city, some people simply are not aware of the importance of the census to public services and aid; others in the community fear that giving their information to the government will lead to their arrest for past criminal offenses. In Englewood, a predominantly African-American community, some residents also refuse to participate because they are offended by one of the census’s designations of their race as “Negro.” For these reasons, Payton believes those who already live in the neighborhood are best equipped to help residents overcome their mistrust of the census and to reassure them of its confidentiality.

With the help of organizations like Teamwork Englewood, an accurate census has the potential to change the landscape of the community by bringing in resources to reestablish a stable workforce. According to Payton, once the need for better infrastructure, security, and education is met, the community will once again draw in “stakeholder” residents–people who are not just there to live, but also to invest and further revitalize the area.

Community members hope that the census will address the immediate need for community centers and afterschool programs for children. Increased funding for such facilities and services can go a long way in keeping kids off the streets and reducing violent crimes, especially during the summertime.

“[The census is about] giving back to the community, helping others to make our environment a better place,” says ten-year-old Shawnah Ewing. “I want it to be safe and nice, and I don’t want any of our alleys messed up. This is where I live.”