Minnesota census kickoff stresses need for accurate count to assure fair state funding and representation

Saeed Fahia, who immigrated to Minnesota 18 years ago from Somalia, is doing his part to push his community to fill out 2010 census questionnaires.

At a press conference today to kick off the census drive, Fahia was among several speakers urging Minnesotans and immigrants to make sure they’re counted in the decade’s population survey. Minnesota is about 1,100 people short of holding onto its eighth seat in the House of Representatives, according to the state demographer’s calculations.

Also at stake is Minnesota’s share of $400 billion in federal funds annually allocated to states for an array of projects that include public safety, transportation, social services, schools, environment and even libraries. “An inaccurate count will hurt us,” said Mike Opat, chairman of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners.

Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said this will be the first census for many Somalis, whose native country’s last attempt to track its population was in 1974.

“It is important for our communities of color to be counted … and our participation is crucial,” he said.

So far, six Somalis have been hired by the Census Bureau to help with the count, Fahia said. They will try to overcome immigrants’ fears about authority figures as well as cultural and language barriers in a population estimated at 20,000 in the 2008 American Community Survey (also a census data-gathering project).

Counting in and of itself is sometimes seen as a “curse,” Fahia told attendees at the Central Library in Minneapolis. A Somali might greet a census worker with a saying that translates: “If you count us, you will lose your hair.”

Rich Gerdes, assistant regional census manager, said the Census Bureau plans to hire 8,000 people across Minnesota — 4,000 in the metro area — to help collect the data. Jobs will pay $9 to $15 an hour. A particular focus will be on hiring people who look like they represent their particular community, he said. (Job applications are here and a practice test is here (PDF). Job seekers also can call toll-free: 1-866-861-2010.)

Minnesota had 383,000 foreign-born residents out of a total population of nearly 5.3 million in 2009, state demographer Tom Gillaspy told MinnPost. This decade’s census drive is “targeted to specific groups that might either have been undercounted in the past or they’re new to the country, where language may be an issue.”

Historically, Minnesota has produced a high return rate of questionnaires, compared with other states, Gerdes said. In fact, Minnesota and Iowa are tied with a 74 percent return rate.

“When you’re looking at a possible difference of only 1,000 or so for that last congressional seat, it’s going to be really close,” Gillaspy said. “It doesn’t take much to miss that difference. If you miss a college dorm, for example, you can miss a thousand people.”

Some newcomers to the United States aren’t aware that the nation has the “oldest, continuous, regularly scheduled census” in the world, he said. The first one was in 1790.

“It’s integral to government and it’s at the very core of what it means to be American,” Gillaspy said. After all, taxation without representation was one of the reasons behind the American Revolution.

Filling out the census questionnaire “is so important,” he said, “that this is the only civic responsibility you’re legally required to do. … Most Americans forget about that stuff. They’re not like me — I eat and drink this stuff 24/7.”

The 2010 census questionnaire has 10 questions and should take 10 minutes to complete. Questionnaires will be mailed or delivered to households in February and March. A sample questionnaire is here.

Gerdes and others emphasized that no private information will be shared with any other government agencies. Data are only released in aggregate, he said.

Casey Selix, a news editor and staff writer for MinnPost[dot]com, can be reached at cselix[at]minnpost.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/15/2010 - 12:50 pm.

    I believe the government uses the information to estimate needs for, for instance, funding health care/Medicaid and Medicare in neighborhoods with large numbers of new immigrants, elderly, or other groups likely to be low income, children of an age to start school, et cetera.

    The seat in Congress is extremely important to retain, but it’s also important to help government do its job by giving it the information they need to do it right.

  2. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 01/15/2010 - 01:30 pm.

    As a practical matter, after the individual states receive their financial allotments as determined by their population size, Minnesota won’t even come close to getting its share of the Federal pie.

    We don’t have any big military bases, and few Federal agencies and civilian Federal contractors, etc.

    And most of our retirees seem to cash their Social Security checks in Mesa or Naples.

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