Although the 2020 census is two years away, community leaders are already at work making sure every resident knows the importance of being counted.
The stakes are high: Illinois' total population count will determine how much federal funding it receives and how many congressional seats it is allotted for the next 10 years.
"That has important implications not only for 2020, but for the next 10 year-period," said state Rep. Mike Halpin, D-Rock Island. "We need to make sure our highest priority is that people in Illinois are actually being counted. It means giving them a voice; the count is necessary for maintaining voter strength."
Halpin hosted the first "You Count!" community meeting Thursday morning at St. John's Lutheran Church, 4501 7th Ave., drawing more than a dozen residents and community leaders.
The meetings, in partnership with the Doris & Victor Day Foundation, are an effort to educate residents on the importance of the 2020 census and the impact it will have for Rock Island County and the state for years to come.
Doris & Victor Day Foundation executive director Dave Geenen said the organization has committed to an investment in the initiative by hiring someone to work full time with local communities to promote, educate and participate in the 2020 census.
"People tell us it’s two years away, but we only have one shot to get this right for the next 10 years," Geenen said. "When we get a good count, we all benefit."
Halpin said Illinois is in danger of losing a seat in U.S. House of Representatives due to population loss.
"When you have fewer representatives, you have fewer votes and fewer voices advocating on your behalf and on behalf of your state in Congress," Halpin said. "If we have an ability to maintain an accurate count and maintain those seats, it’s going to give Illinois an advantage when it comes to its representation.
"This is also about the programs and distribution of funds that come through the state to residents based on census data."
Halpin said a report from the Census Bureau last year showed 132 programs used census data to distribute more than $675 billion in federal funds across the country for fiscal year 2015.
"There is an ever-increasing amount of funds depending on where people are located," he said. "It includes SNAP (food stamp) benefits, Head Start, Children’s Health Insurance Program, highway funds, Section 8, school breakfast programs, community development block grants, crime victim assistance, and block grants for community mental health assistance."
Moline Mayor Stephanie Acri agreed the census count is important for securing community development block grants.
"We use it very carefully," Acri said. "The more money we get, the better off we are. We use it to improve sidewalks and help provide housing, so it’s very important for communities’ quality of life."
Acri said the census count also helps determine how much the city receives for economic development and lead abatement. With so many older homes in the city, funding for the expensive lead abatement process is necessary.
Acri said Moline, however, has some areas known for low response to the census.
"You'll recognize it as the Floreciente neighborhood. They responded at a level of 68 percent in the past census," Acri said. "We need to have a conversation across our community to understand what the impediments are, and help eliminate them."
Anita Banerji, director of the Forefront Democracy Initiative, said the organization is mobilizing across the country in anticipation of the census. One of the main challenges in encouraging people to complete the census is the citizenship question recently added to the form. Several lawsuits are pending in federal courts to have it removed, she said.
"We need to get everyone accounted for, regardless of your citizenship status," she said. "Hard-to-count populations include undocumented individuals, immigrant communities, renters, the homeless, children under (age) five, and people of color."
Banerji said this will be the first census conducted online. Households will first receive a letter with instructions on how to fill out the census online. Those not responding electronically will then receive a paper census by mail. If the paper format is not mailed in, census workers will attempt to reach residents by phone.
For every person not counted, Rock Island County will lose $1,700 per year for the next 10 years, Doris & Victor Day Foundation program officer Laura Fontaine said, amounting to $17,000 over a decade for one person.
"Times it by 100 people who don’t fill out the census, and we’ll be losing a lot of federal funding," Fontaine said.
Rock Island-Milan School District Superintendent Mike Oberhaus said an under-counted population also will have an impact on the amount of money schools receive in funding.
"It's real simple for us; $11 million is what was downgraded last year in federal dollars from the Rock Island-Milan School District," Oberhaus said. "If we have (census) under counts, we are under-supporting what should be happening for the students we serve every day."
The next "You Count!" community meeting on the 2020 census will be held at 10;30 a.m. Oct. 2, hosted by state Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Andalusia, and state Rep. Tony McCombie, Savanna, also at St. John's Lutheran Church.
"A fair and accurate count is important to our non-profits," Geenen said. "It's important to education, for our business sector, it's important for our municipalities, and for our residents."