What the population undercount means for local governments

Illinois municipalities want to make sure they get their fair share of funds following the...
Illinois municipalities want to make sure they get their fair share of funds following the "significant" undercount of Illinois's population reported by the 2020 Census.(WGEM)
Published: May. 25, 2022 at 3:23 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - The U.S. Census Bureau says Illinois was one of 14 states undercounted by the 2020 Census, meaning the state actually has gained population since 2010. But for those left out, the undercount means a loss of resources for their community.

Census numbers determine the allocation of federal funds. Having fewer people means local governments get less money.

The Illinois Municipal League has sent a letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker calling on him to ensure local governments and municipalities receive their fair amount of funding based on whether or not they were undercounted. Additionally, they expressed concern about the changes this could mean for a local government’s ability to govern.

An added wrinkle comes from a March 2022 Census Bureau reporting showing Black, Latino and other minority populations were undercounted, meaning “historically underserved” communities may miss out on the benefits the Census provides.

Federal funds

Pritzker reached out to President Joe Biden earlier this week asking him to give Illinois a more appropriate share of federal funds considering the significant undercount of the population.

“I urge you, President Biden, to continue to support the Census Bureau’s review of the 2020 Census and look into every possible avenue to factor the most recent PES data into the Bureau’s population estimates and ensure the local communities of Illinois receive the federal dollars that they are entitled to,” Pritzker’s letter reads. “We now have the opportunity to right this wrong by ensuring every Illinoisan receives their equitable amount of federal dollars impacted by the Census.”

The money divided by the census funds several federal efforts, like Medicare, infrastructure and support to homeland security.

However, the IML argues the governor’s letter makes no mention of municipal funds. They’re concerned the money will only go to the state and not make its way down the line.

That money is allocated on a per capita basis on a municipal level and funds roads, utilities and other services for residents.

“If a community of 100,000 people is only receiving reimbursement or funding for 90,000 people, then the community can’t keep up,” IML Executive Director Brad Cole said.

IML admits it’s not the president’s role to ensure municipalities get their share of the federal funds. However, Cole said he wants the governor to make sure the money is fairly distributed among local governments once it makes it to the state level.

“Well there’s an absolute void right now, we understand and we appreciate that the state needs to receive its funding from the federal government, but we’re talking about after that,” Cole said. “What happens with the local governments - the municipalities - in regards to state funding?”

Home rule authority

Additionally, population data determines the extent to which communities get to govern themselves.

Known as “home rule” authority, towns under 25,000 residents are restricted in what local laws they can and can’t make. Specifically, they are bound by what has been allowed for them in law by the General Assembly. On the other end, towns with a population greater than 25,000 are allowed to make ordinances and enforce local governance so long as it isn’t specifically restricted in state law.

According to the IML, there are about 10 communities hanging on the threshold between home rule and non-home rule. An undercounted population could push them over the edge, or help communities estimated to have lost that status due to population loss.

“If those communities were undercounted, then they could potentially lose that home-rule status and that would be a disservice to them and their residents, and that would have a direct impact on their residents,” Cole said.

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