Hoping to Spur Participation, City Unleashes the Census Cowboy

Chicago's response rate was 66% in the 2010 census, compared to 74% nationwide.

Chicago's response rate was 66% in the 2010 census, compared to 74% nationwide. Shutterstock


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The "census cowboy" will ride on horseback to 10 neighborhoods in Chicago with the lowest participation rates in the federal census, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said this week.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has a succinct message for city residents who haven’t filled out their 2020 census forms:


“When I was a kid, I loved the Batman TV show,” Lightfoot said Monday at a press conference. “When the city of Gotham had a real difficult challenge, one of the thing the mayor there did is, he called out and sent out the distress signal to Batman. So we are doing something similar for the census, and I’m happy to report that I’m calling out the 'census cowboy.'”

Lightfoot placed a lime-green cowboy hat atop her head and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” began to play as Adam Hollingsworth, a 33-year-old former boxer, rode in on horseback.

Hollingsworth, usually known as the "Dread Head Cowboy," went viral on social media earlier this summer after riding his horse Bella to downtown Chicago demonstrations over the death of George Floyd. In his capacity as the “census cowboy,” Hollingsworth will spend the next week visiting the 10 Chicago neighborhoods with the lowest census response rates, Lightfoot said.

The census cowboy and Mayor Lori Lightfoot (via Twitter)

“If you see the 'census cowboy' in your neighborhood, that’s not a good thing,” she said. “That means you’ve got to step up and do your part and make sure you fill out the census.”

Data from the federal census, conducted every 10 years, determines the number of seats that each state has in the House of Representatives and is also used to allocate trillions of federal dollars to local communities, affecting everything from schools to infrastructure. In 2010, Chicago’s response rate was 66%, compared to 74% nationwide.

Lightfoot hoped the city would achieve a 75% response rate in 2020, boosted by $2.7 million the city would spend on education and outreach. But that plan was largely sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the mayor asked President Trump to postpone the census, saying there wasn’t enough “bandwidth” to conduct the proper outreach with staff focusing full-time on the virus.

The Census Bureau eventually postponed the end of the count from the end of July to October 31. In the meantime, Chicago’s response rate fell to 55%, with lower rates in several neighborhoods. 

The bureau has been hiring people to send out this summer to get responses from people in nonresponsive households. Earlier this month, the agency said 900,000 temporary workers had accepted job offers and expected to have people in the field starting August 11. People can also fill out the census online or by sending back a paper form. 

Lightfoot said community groups in Chicago are also working to improve the local response rate. The mayor's office is launching other initiatives to encourage participation, including a 10-day city-wide census challenge, where the ward with the largest percentage increase in participation will receive ice cream. 

And now, of course, the "census cowboy"—wearing a mask, of course—is on the prowl.

“So let’s do this, Chicago,” Lightfoot said. “Let’s make the census cowboy proud.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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