[read the story in Polish as published on informacjeUSA.com]

Grazyna Zajaczkowska pulls out an 1,832-page Polish Yellow Pages directory. The Director of Immigrant Services of the Polish American Association (PAA) in Chicago does it to underscore how many Polish-Americans live and work in and around Chicago. She puts the number at more than one million people, an astonishing figure if accurate.

“This is the largest population of Poles after Warsaw,” Zajaczkowska said.

The 2010 U.S. Census may factor into such musings but it won’t have an authoritative role to play in confirming or debunking Zajaczkowska’s claim because the government’s official decennial survey doesn’t directly ask for ethnic affiliation. However, the results matter significantly in determining how much government money gets funneled into the community.

According to the 2000 Census Report, 820,548 Polish people live in the six-county Metro Chicago area, which consists of Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kane, McHenry and Will counties.


This story is part of a unique collaboration of six Chicago area ethnic news media exploring the impact of the upcoming U.S. Census count on their communities. The stories were released simultaneously on Fri., Jan. 15, by Extra (Hispanic), the Polish Daily News, 4NewsMedia (Polish), Pinoy Newsmagazine (Philippine), Future newspaper (Arab), the India Tribune, and the Korea Daily News. Click here to access the other stories: U.S. Census needed for Korean elections,  Counting Hispanics in Little Village’s hands, Two Indian communities join to take on the U.S. Census, U.S. Census challenges fragmented Filipino community, and Arab “whites” await the U.S. Census.


In the United States, the Polish community traces its beginnings to the earliest European permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. The first Polish settlers arrived in 1608 according to “Jamestown Pioneers of Poland,” a brief history of the settlers published by the Polish American Congress in 1976.

As the U.S. prepares for its first census in the 21st century, the Polish community has grown from a handful of Polish glassmakers in Jamestown to millions across the country.

The census is an essential tool for assessing the needs of communities across the country. Based on the results, the federal government provides funding for such services as education, health care and transportation infrastructure.

“It helps for the community, for Cook County. You get money from the government for schools and neighborhoods,” said Andrzej Partyka, a 32-year-old construction worker living in Jefferson Park. “If much more people fill it out, it’s going to be better [for us],” said Partyka, who has been here for four years.

However, the effects of filling out the census are not common knowledge in the Polish community.

“A lot of people don’t understand or comprehend what’s going on, and they don’t want to get involved in something they don’t understand,” said Alicja Pasieka, 40, who has been in Chicago since she was 12. This may lead to people not realizing that the census does directly affect them and their community.

There are a variety of reasons why Polish people may not fill out the census, the first of which is the language barrier, according to Zajaczowska. Though census forms are available in Polish, the translation is “horrible,” according to Lidia Seeger, who works with the Housing Department of the Polish American Association. The original form in English must be filled out, as the Polish translation only serves as a guide. The Association is re-translating the form and putting it on its Web site.

Many Polish people may not be inclined to participate in the census because of trust issues with the government, dating back to when Poland was under Socialist rule, according to Zajaczowska. This especially applies to undocumented immigrants, who may not want to participate for fear of being deported.

“It’s very easy to blend in and nobody knows where you are when you’re illegal, so why expose yourself?” Pasieka said. For her, filling out the census form gives undocumented people the impression that they are making their existence known to the government and putting themselves in danger of “getting into trouble.”

“Those are common scares in immigrant communities – a fear of government and fear of information being shared with immigration authorities is common across the borders,” said Monika Starczuk, who founded the Young Polish Initiative. “That’s where education comes in, and why organizations are so critical.”

Another barrier to filling out the census form is that people may not even recognize it when it arrives in the mail, according to Zajaczowska.

“We will have to teach them that the Census 2010 means ‘Spis Powszechny,’” Zajaczowska said. This literally translates to “common list” which is what the census is called in Poland.

The U.S. Census Bureau has launched an ad campaign targeted at Polish people to encourage participation in the census.

However, it is out of touch with the Polish community, according to Zajaczowska, and it is unclear what the poster itself is advertising. A slogan that says “Ten Questions to Change the Situation and Make History” is prominently featured on the ad, while “Census 2010” is only part of the fine print at the bottom.

“No one who sees the poster realizes it’s for the census,” said Zajaczowska, who also said that the Polish American Association will add a label to the poster for clarification. “We have to. There’s no other way.”

This year’s census also marks a change in how ethnicity is measured. In the 2000 Census, every U.S. resident completed a short form survey that gave a broad selection of races, including White, Black, American Indian and Asian Indian. Seventeen percent of the population filled out a long form survey that examined ancestry. The long form has been terminated for the 2010 Census, and ancestry will instead be measured by the American Community Survey, a yearly survey sent to a sample of the population. Therefore, the upcoming census itself won’t resolve how many Polish-Americans live here.

There are nearly 680,000 Polish-Americans living in Cook, DuPage and Lake counties, according to the 2008 American Community Survey. The sample sizes of Kane, McHenry and Will counties were too small to yield significant results for that survey. However, based on the 2000 Census there are over 122,000 Polish people living in those counties. This means that the number of Polish-Americans in Chicago has decreased by about 20,000 in the past decade.

“The wave of people immigrating to the U.S. is smaller for Polish immigrants,” Starczuk said.

The longer American Community Survey gives ethnic and racial groups a chance to identify their heritage in further detail than the short form census. Whether or not a person is Polish will be asked on the survey but not on the official 2010 Census. The only way for people to identify as Polish on the official short census form is checking “Some other race” and writing it in.

“It’s extremely hard for so many people to state what they really are [on the short form census,]” said Zajaczowska, adding that ethnic and racial groups struggle to identify themselves properly.

Pasieka said she would check White on the form and thinks that “99.9 percent” of Polish people will do the same. “I don’t think there’s a question about it.” But their Polish heritage will be lost among all the other people who also check White.

“It’s a different thing if you have all ethnicities and minority groups listed and then you can choose, but then there are too many nationalities,” said Michalina Maliszewska, a 25-year-old graduate of Northeastern University. Maliszewska was the president of the Polish Student Club at Northeastern and attended the National Conference of the Polish American Congress last year. “It would be too hard in America to list all of them…. race is the major thing for the Census.”

The U.S. Census Bureau is currently working with Polish organizations like the Young Polish Initiative to reach out to the Polish community in Chicago, including their presentation at the National Conference of the Polish American Congress.

“The media has been very interested in passing through information,” Starczuk said. “We’re doing a lot of outreach and informing people about the importance of the census.”

Important, yes, but not to put to rest the question of whether the number of Polish-Americans in the Chicago area has topped one million.