Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants the U.S. Census Bureau to recount Chicago’s population. He believes we have more than 2,695,598 people living in the city. As one of the census enumerators who tried to count all those people, I can tell you he’s right. Consider this adventure in enumerating:
Outside a building with yellow grass and empty Cheetos bags in the courtyard, I was blocked by a gate with a broken intercom. This was on a Jonquil Terrace, low-income street in the neighborhood known colloquially as the Juneway Jungle or, even more colloquially, “The Jungle.” I called the management company number bolted to the brick wall.
“This is the Census Bureau. I need someone to let me in your building.”
“We don’t have time to send anyone over,” an irritated woman with a European accent said. “Why don’t you just mail people a form?”
“We did that,” I told her. “We’re trying to find the people who didn’t send their forms back.”
“WELL, HAS IT OCCURRED TO YOU THEY MIGHT NOT WANT TO PARTICIPATE?” she snapped.
“Ma’am,” I said, “this is the Census. We have to count everyone. It’s in the Constitution.”
I envied rural and suburban enumerators, who didn’t have to talk their way into high-rises. They also didn’t look out of place wearing a tie.
(“This ain’t a good day to be sellin’ insurance!” someone had shouted, as I walked to my addresses. I flipped my satchel to show I was “the census man.”)
Three minutes later, I followed a tenant into the courtyard. It was the government’s good fortune that the locks on the exterior doors were broken, too, so I could pester everyone in the building right on their doorsteps. That beat an intercom. It’s easy to get information out of people when you wave a federal ID in their faces.
Despite my best efforts at trespassing, I was unable to complete a form for four units in that building. The same thing happened in another slummy building on my beat. The slumlord refused to cooperate. (Most building managers shared their tenant lists with me, allowing me to count people I couldn’t catch at home.) There must have been hundreds, even thousands of buildings like that around the city. The nature of census taking and of poor, immigrant populations in urban areas guarantees that cities will be undercounted in comparison to suburbs and small towns, and thus be deprived their fair share of federal resources: $1,200 per person annually.
According to the Tribune, “the administration estimates the census missed as many as 2,350 Chicagoans, who, if counted, would bring in an extra $2.8 million per year in federal funding.”
I’ll bet we missed more than that, but it would take another army of enumerators to find them.
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