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Minnesota leads nation in census response rate, but the outreach isn’t over

“All of our efforts have been pushed kind of from the real world to the virtual world,” said Andrew Virden, state director of census operations. 

census rally
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan led a census rally in the Capitol Rotunda on April 1, 2019.
The census was supposed to be wrapping up by now. 

Those hoping to get an accurate count of Minnesotans, from the U.S. Census Bureau to community organizations, spent several months preparing people to fill out their forms, which would be available online for the first time. But when April 1, the official start of the 2020 census, finally came around, Minnesota was hunkering down because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order has been in effect for more than 100 days, and many groups encouraging a “complete count” of residents have scrapped initial outreach plans. Andrew Virden, Minnesota’s director of census operations, said when reaching people at festivals like the MayDay Parade and Pride were no longer an option, the state demographer’s office turned to more socially distant strategies. 

Virtual outreach

“All of our efforts have been pushed kind of from the real world to the virtual world,” Virden said. 

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Overall, precautions and disruptions created by COVID-19 do not seem to have significantly impacted residents’ ability to complete the census. Minnesota is leading the country in its census response rate, with nearly 72% of households responding (Wisconsin is second).

In 2010, Minnesota finished the census with about 74% of households responding. 

Andrew Virden
Andrew Virden
“We’re doing well. But the people who are missing now are very important. People who are missing now, people who have not filled out their form now, are likely to be people who’ve been missed before as well,” Virden said, adding that historically undercounted communities include people of color, renters, young children and low-income populations. 

In an effort to reach these communities more directly, the demographer’s office is using voter registration data in order to call people based on age, demography and language who are traditionally “hard to count.” Phone bankers offer to help households fill out the census and, with the upcoming election in mind, ask if they’d like to vote by mail and become an election judge.

Volunteers have made more than 178,000 calls and reached about 18,400 households, Virden said. 

“For us to literally be able to call only the people in the low-responding [census] tracts is really amazing,” Virden said.

Areas of low response so far

While Hennepin County overall has a high response rate, the University of Minnesota area, north Minneapolis, and parts of south Minneapolis, including the Phillips and Seward neighborhoods, are trending lower, said Sam Fettig, a U.S. Census Bureau partnership coordinator for Minnesota. Some counties in northern Minnesota are also below 60% in response rates.

There could be a variety of reasons for these trends, like residents who are wary of the government, language barriers or people who are not aware of the importance of the census, Fettig said.

The University of Minnesota area in particular has some of the lowest proportion of responses in Hennepin County, with rates of 40-60% across different census tracts. 

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The issue is that a majority of students left campus when classes moved online, meaning their invitation to fill out the census might still be sitting in their mailbox, said Mike Miller, the university’s legislative advocacy coordinator. 

“When COVID hit, and all the students kind of moved back home with their parents, it kind of became a big ‘now what?’” said Miller, who is also the co-chair of the university’s Complete Count Committee, a Census Bureau program to reach local communities. 

The committee initially encouraged parents and students to fill out the census as if students were still living near campus. However, communicating that has been complicated, and parents may have already counted their college students as part of the household, Miller said. Now, the next strategy is to get students to fill out their forms when they come back to school. 

“If we can push them to do that, their names and their IDs will be duplicative from their [parents’ forms].That makes it really easy to catch,” Miller said. “Hopefully we can get to, if not all of them, as many as possible and make a late push to save this.”

Adapting outreach methods

In the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, located on the university’s West Bank, the pandemic has prevented Ahmed Mussa from reaching residents at central gathering spots like churches and mosques the way he used to. Mussa, a community coordinator at Pillsbury United Communities, said many residents are East African immigrants who arrived after the last census or otherwise need to be reminded of what it is.

The census questionnaire is not available in Somali or Oromo, which many residents of Cedar Riverside speak. Mussa and members of the Pillsbury United Communities Complete Count Committee have been posted at the Brian Coyle Center’s food shelf, one of the few operations open during the outbreak, to help residents answer the form. 

“This pandemic, it’s been very tough. People, especially the elders who live here, they’re very vulnerable to this virus and they don’t want to come outside,” Mussa said, adding that the elders may struggle to use technology.

Ahmed Mussa
Photo by Meghan Marriott
Ahmed Mussa giving a presentation on the census.
Another factor is that the timeline for when census workers actually begin knocking on doors has been pushed back by several months. Before the pandemic, census workers were supposed to follow up with households who had not responded in mid-May. Workers will now start door knocking on Aug. 11 and continue until Oct. 31.

“Ultimately, when we go out and start doing our door knocking we do expect to get a complete and accurate count, but we do want to get those self-response rates up in the meantime,” Fettig said. “When people have the time to go online, or however they’d like to respond … it tends to be a better experience and essentially a better response. … And it reduces the workload, the number of houses that we have to send census workers to.”

Greater Minnesota issues

Many parts of northern Minnesota didn’t get their forms until early June because of a delay in the “update leave” operation, when Census Bureau workers physically drop off the information rather than mail it. This is meant to accommodate rural or remote areas where people may not receive mail at their houses. 

Update leave, which was supposed to finish in March, has also impacted the number of responses from Native Americans living on some reservations in the state. The White Earth reservation, the largest in the state, currently has about 31% of households responding. Red Lake has the smallest response rate out of all tribal areas at about 5%. 

Shelly Diaz
Shelly Diaz
The Tribal Hub, a Complete Count Committee made up of 11 tribes throughout Minnesota, has been working since May 2019 to change the historic undercount of Native Americans in the census. 

Shelly Diaz, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and coordinator of the Tribal Hub, said keeping census outreach a priority during the pandemic has been difficult. Tribal governments have been hit hard financially since leaders decided to close down casinos, a key source of revenue for some tribes, out of health concerns.

“We’re back in survival mode. We have to figure out how we’re going to keep our communities safe, how we’re going to feed our families,” Diaz said.

Like her counterparts across the state, Diaz had big plans for getting people excited about the census. Prior to the pandemic, she’d be prepping for March 21, which the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council had declared the “2020 Census Powwow Day.” 

She said committee members have since pivoted to virtual community meetings, social media updates and sending out fliers. Once school starts again, Diaz will try to connect with parents there. 

“I’m trying to keep up the enthusiasm. I’m not a quitter. And so, you know, I’m going to push until October 31, even if I have to go knock on doors myself or pick up that phone myself.”

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While the extended deadline gives organizers like Diaz more time, Virden from the state demographer’s office said sustaining attention on the census amid the pandemic is no easy feat. 

Emphasizing that funding will be based on census data

“When you’re talking to someone about the census it’s a tough conversation to have. ‘I’m worried about my job, I’m worried about my health insurance, I’m worried that I’m going to get sick,’” Virden said. But he pointed out that funding to recover from the economic downturn, the health crisis and the unrest over the killing of George Floyd will be based on census data.

“It’s even more important for us now to make sure that we get every Minnesotan counted in order to make sure that we get our fair share of resources from Washington, D.C., and from St. Paul, so that we can build a more equitable state in the next 10 years. Because if we get the census count wrong now, that will have effects on our state for a decade.”

How to respond to the 2020 Census: 

  • Online at 2020Census.gov 
  • Call 844-330-2020 – phone lines are open 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. Central – seven days a week
  • By paper via mail. Households that have not responded online or by phone would have received a paper questionnaire in the mail.