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People forget babies: Minnesota lawmakers want to gear up for the Census (and, just maybe, hold on to a congressional seat)

One proposal would set aside $2.5 million for the state demographer to support Census officials and help nongovernmental groups work with those in danger of being undercounted. 

Susan Brower, Minnesota state demographer: “People forget [babies] on their forms. They get left off.”
Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

Minnesota is on the bubble and it isn’t even March yet.

Whether the state keeps all eight of its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives or loses representation depends not just on how many people live in Minnesota when the next Census is taken in April of 2020 — but on whether all of those people are actually counted.

Taking the tally is the constitutional job of the federal government, of course, but states have power and money at stake, as well as a little pride. In addition to representation in Washington, Census numbers are used in many federal programs to distribute money. Minnesota currently gets more than $15.5 billion from the federal government annually.

All of which is why Gov. Tim Walz has proposed spending $1.6 million in one-time spending for the state Demographic Center to implement an “outreach and engagement plan” to boost awareness and participation in the Census.

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“While the primary responsibility of conducting the census falls on the U.S. Census Bureau, the state has the ability to boost participation in the census by making sure that local communities, governments and organizations are fully supported to engage historically undercounted groups with whom they are connected,” Walz’s budget document states.

Though the same document expresses worries about groups that have traditionally been undercounted — renters, immigrants, communities of color and children — it also outlines an additional complication for getting an accurate tally in 2020: the “increasing mistrust of governmental institutions — especially among immigrants whose fear has grown due to the proposal to add a citizenship question to the census.”

Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, said getting a full and accurate count is especially important for Minnesota next year. One analysis of state-by-state population estimates for 2018, by Election Data Services, predicts Minnesota will lose one of its eight seats in the U.S. House. Yet it also notes that the state is within a few thousand people of having the 435th of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives.

State Rep. Jamie Long
State Rep. Jamie Long
“Minnesota is 437th, Montana is 436th and California is 435th,” Long said of the current estimates. “But we’re right on that line; if we had a strong count we could pull off the same trick we pulled off in 2010 and keep the seat.”

That same analysis also reports, however, that if population trends continue, Minnesota could hold onto the seat. “Minnesota lost its ‘eligibility’ for its 8th seat early in this decade; however, the trend line hints at a possible restoration of that eligibility in time for the 2020 Reapportionment,” Election Data Services wrote in its December analysis.

Long’s proposal has bipartisan sponsorship and would set aside $2.5 million for the state demographer to support the state’s efforts and work with Census officials. It also provides grants to help nongovernmental groups work with groups in danger of being missed: people living in rural communities; post-secondary students who move between home and school; apartment dwellers; and babies under 5.


“People forget them on their forms,” said Susan Brower, Minnesota state demographer. “They get left off.”

In fact, young children are “the highest undercounted population nationally,” said Bob Tracy, director of public policy and communications for the Minnesota Council of Foundations, which is helping lead an effort called the Minnesota Census Mobilization Partnership. “It’s been trending up over the last several Censuses and we don’t have a good explanation why.”

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While it is true across demographic groups, it is especially true for Hispanic children, Brower said.

The legal fight over the citizenship question and the media coverage could further limit responses — whether the question is allowed on the forms or not. To combat that, Tracy said the partnership has been working with organizations that have conducted focus groups with immigrants to gauge the impact.

“Once you explain how the Census works and what is at stake for their communities, they move to the point of thinking, ‘No one is going to erase me; no one is going to take my identity away.’ That’s a motivating factor for folks,” Tracy said. “But we need to be able to say ‘we have your back,’” which includes creating a legal response network similar to what is set up around elections to battle voter suppression.

Long said his bill doesn’t speak directly to the question of immigrant participation, but it does help people understand the value of it via outreach to historically undercounted populations by providing for multilingual educational and promotional materials. (A Senate version of the bill is expected, though Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he has not looked at that part of Walz’s budget nor has he heard from members of the GOP caucus in the Senate about it yet.)

As with other measurements of civic involvement, Minnesota scores highly in Census participation rates. In 2010, its response rate to the initial contact by the Census Bureau was 81 percent, second among states.

Brower said her staff, which would be expanded under the bill, works closely with the Census’ regional office in Chicago as the service plans its outreach and would try to fill in any gaps it notices.

United States Census
In 2010, Minnesota's response rate to the initial contact by the Census Bureau was 81 percent, second among states.

Next year’s count will be the first to offer online participation and will provide real-time response rates to both state officials and the public. “We’ll be able to see what areas are responding, what areas are not, and hopefully target our resources and people to areas that aren’t responding before the window closes,” Brower said.  

Long said people might be surprised to see how low response rates are in rural areas of the state. “People tend to think of Census undercount as communities of color and urban communities, which is accurate — there are a lot of challenges to counting in dense populations, large family size, apartment buildings — but there is a huge issue with rural communities too. And a Minnesotan is a Minnesotan, and we need to count them all.”