High-stakes census count charts a changing Minnesota

Tom Gillaspy can be forgiven if his pulse is racing a bit faster this spring — because this is the season of numbers and he is a numbers guy.  And I’m not talking baseball stats.

Gillaspy, as Minnesota’s state demographer, is looking forward to a tsunami of data as the U.S. Census Bureau tally rolls in across the state and the country. Like time lapse photography, the decennial headcount can reveal long range trends we’re unable to see close up.

Near term, all eyes in Minnesota will be fixed on the big question of whether the Gopher State can hang onto its eight congressional seats and where the new congressional district boundary lines will be drawn. 

That is the official purpose behind the once-in-a-decade, constitutionally mandated headcount, a task that Gillaspy figures will keep him and others busy the next 18 months or more. And as the Census Bureau has reminded us in a blizzard of advertising and promotional messages, census data is also used to distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds to tribal, state and local governments each year.

But what else will the numbers tell us and what is the state’s official numbers guy going to be watching for?  Even though the census this year is cut down to 10 questions (no more long forms asking how many bathrooms you have), there will be plenty for him ponder.

‘A messy thing’

Gillaspy will be watching for the evolving relationship between the central cities, suburbs, smaller towns and rural areas. Characterizing an area as urban or rural can be “a messy thing,” he noted, “as urban areas grow and take over an area that had previously been rural.”

The 2010 census will also provide a snapshot of suburban areas that had been growing rapidly in recent years. Gillaspy will be watching to see if the current recession temporarily stalls that growth or permanently alters it.

In addition to larger trends, the census “will give us a much better sense of what’s happening to families,” Gillaspy said. While not directly charting the real estate bust’s impact on Minnesota, the count will provide several indirect measures, Gillaspy said. 

“What’s happening to folks that have been foreclosed on and have to move?” he asked rhetorically. “Are the kids moving back [in with their parents], are a brother- and sister-in-law moving in? Are we seeing multiple families in areas we didn’t used to? I don’t know,” he said in anticipation of finding the answers.

He noted that over the past decade Minnesota has become much more ethnically diverse and the headcount will “give us more firm data on how that continues to change.” Gillaspy will be interested in seeing changes in the numbers of people who describe themselves as multi-racial. The question was first asked in the 2000 tally, so this census “will give us a better sense of what’s happening there” as children of mixed racial parentage become increasingly more common.

Noting that “the concept of diversity is becoming more diverse and more complex,” Gillaspy acknowledged that census questions of ethnicity and racial identification have attracted criticism from some quarters. While he sympathizes with those asking if race is “a reasonable thing to measure,” he said that “the legal and government systems are not yet to that point.”

Changes in family structure

Gillaspy will also be watching for changes in family structure. He expects to see a rise in empty nesters but also an increase in “alternative family structures.” Looking at marriage strictly as a contractual arrangement between individuals, Gillaspy said the idea of what constitutes a household is changing. “What we’ve seen are more and more couples that did not have that contractual agreement [marriage]…more and more couples of the opposite and same gender living together…We’ll see how that population changes.”

The question is particularly important in understanding the families children are coming from so schools can respond, he noted.

“One thing the census will do that doesn’t sound sexy but really is” comes from improving the state’s models for population estimates, Gillaspy noted. The state projects population changes each year in very small cities and townships as well as larger cities. But estimates are only as good as the assumptions demographers use, he said. The census data will help Gillaspy and colleagues recalibrate their models. “We need a baseline once every decade” to evaluate estimating accuracy after 10 years.

Census data remains “a key piece of information for both the public and private sectors,” he noted. It provides a baseline for a decade of decisions on everything from whether to build a new school or highway to where to locate a new mall or apartment building and where to advertise and launch a new product or service.

So Gillaspy is looking forward to this season of numbers. “The first thing is to get everyone counted. Then the question of congressional seats and districts will take lot of energy in next year and half or two years,” he said. “There will be plenty to do.”

And lots of numbers.

Where does Minnesota rank among states competing for congressional seats?

Last December Gillaspy projected that Minnesota would just barely miss keeping its eight Congressional seats, based on an analysis of state population estimates from the Census Bureau.

“Basically, this is a dead heat,” he said at the time. “Our chances of retaining eight seats are improving every day. What will decide the issue is getting everyone in Minnesota counted in the 2010 Census.”

Gillaspy had projected that Missouri would receive the last seat apportioned, with Minnesota just missing by about 1,100 people — a difference of less than one month’s population change for Minnesota. The difference between California, Texas, Missouri and Minnesota for the last three seats is about 2,200 people, which is well within the potential estimating error, he noted.

States projected to lose seats are Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which is expected to lose two, according to Gillaspy.  States projected to gain seats are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, Washington and Texas, which is expected to gain four seats.

How is Minnesota doing in returning census forms?

As of last Friday, 66 percent of Minnesota households had mailed back their census forms compared with a 56 percent response rate nationwide, putting the Gopher State in the top five nationally. The three other states in the “dead heat” competition for congressional seats are lagging Minnesota’s response rate so far with Missouri at 61 percent, California at 52 percent and Texas at 48 percent.

Woodbury posted the highest tally among Minnesota cities and towns at 70 percent, for a No. 22 ranking nationwide. Lake of the Woods County has the lowest response in the state so far at 27 percent.

The Census Bureau launched an interactive map to track response rates down to zip codes.

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