Chicago Mayor Sends Out ‘Census Cowboy’ to Boost Low Response Rates

July 14, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday unveiled an unusual plan to encourage Chicagoans to participate in the U.S. government’s once-a-decade push to count every U.S. resident: a cowboy on a horse. 

The mayor was speaking at a press conference when a man in torn denim and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat rode onto stage to the tune of Lil Nas X’s 2019 hit “Old Town Road.”

“I’m happy to report, I’m calling out the Census Cowboy,” said Lightfoot, putting on a neon green cowboy hat for the announcement. “If you see the Census Cowboy coming to your neighborhood that’s not a good thing. That means you’ve got to step up and do your part and make sure that you fill out the census.”

So far, just over half of Chicago residents have filled out the 2020 Census despite desperate efforts by city officials to boost response rates, Lightfoot said. “We have to do better. We have to aim higher and set our sights on making sure we do everything we can to change that 55% to a much higher number.”

Low census response rates are bad news for local entities — they lead to less federal funding for schools, hospitals, roadways, public works, and other important programs. 

States, counties, and cities receive federal money based on their population and how it breaks down by sex, age, race, and other factors.

When cities undercount their population, they receive less than their due share of federal money, which can result in budget shortfalls and cuts to essential city services.

“The census isn’t just about tallying our city’s population, it’s about making sure we have the resources we need to make sure investments happen all over this city,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve got a lot to lose, but it’s important we get this done and get it done as quickly as possible.”

Lightfoot had previously announced a “census ward challenge” that promised free ice cream to all children in the neighborhood with the largest increase in census response rates.

Beyond the allocation of federal funding, the census also determines the numbers of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives, and is used to draw up congressional and state legislative districts. 

But there is widespread fear among immigrant communities that responding to the U.S. Census could lead to deportation by U.S. immigration authorities. 

In March, the Census Bureau started mailing paper questionnaires to the nation’s roughly 140 million households, and residents were also invited to respond online.

Households that do not reply to the census can expect a follow-up from the Census Bureau at their doorstep. The follow-up period is supposed to conclude in late July. Under U.S. law, those who don’t respond to the questionnaire can face a penalty of up to $5,000.

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