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Census outreach gears up in Minnesota to get the most accurate count possible

The state of Minnesota as well as nonprofits and foundations are making a special effort to get inside the parts of the community most likely to resist the census and convince them that they should participate.

census rally
Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan led a census rally in the Capitol Rotunda on April 1 of this year.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

During a meeting last week in north Minneapolis, V.J. Smith asked those gathered to talk about the 2020 census and what barriers might exist to keep their neighbors from taking part. The entire purpose of the committee he co-chairs, after all, is to try to make sure historically undercounted populations get counted next year.

There were lots of reasons. The community isn’t a community, said one woman, explaining that it isn’t as unified as it once was. Another spoke of general distrust of the government. Still another said people with criminal backgrounds tend not to open their doors to people they don’t know asking questions about who lives there.

“I’m not here” is their first inclination, he said. Someone else said a house or apartment might have more people living there than the lease permits. And immigrants will be reluctant to respond, whether they are documented or not.

Federal law prohibits census responses to be used for anything other than aggregated statistics. It can’t be shared with law enforcement, or federal immigration officials or landlords. That fact, however, isn’t well known or isn’t believed.

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The people charged with trying to make Minnesota’s population count as accurate as possible when the census officially begins on April 1 are familiar with those challenges. They are the reason the state of Minnesota as well as nonprofits and foundations are making a special effort to get inside the parts of the community most likely to resist the census and convince them that they should participate. Part of the effort, funded by both the state and nonprofits, includes grants ranging from $750 to $5,000 to groups that want to help.

“It is up to us to be able to explain in different languages and different cultures that you count,” Smith said. “We do not count you to tell on you. We do not count you to get you in trouble. We’re counting you to make it better for the schools, to make it better for our system and better for our community.”

“Being counted in the census is a human right,” said Xiongpao “Xp” Lee, a program manager for the Minnesota Council on Foundations, which has made census outreach a priority. “If you don’t count yourself, you do not exist. You are invisible in the data for the next 10 years.”

While “complete count” advocates might wish that people would take part in a once-a-decade process required by the U.S. Constitution out of some sense of patriotism, they know most people need more incentive. To that end, census proponents speak of two benefits of the census: power and money. Census results are used to reapportion Congress, to decide which states gain seats in the 435-member House of Representatives. Minnesota remains on the edge of keeping its current eight seats or losing one. The state last lost a seat after the 1960 census.

The numbers will also be used in 2021 by the state to decide how to distribute seats in the Legislature. Since districts must have the same number of people, having more or less population in the cities versus rural areas could alter the political makeup of the House and Senate.

V.J. Smith
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
V.J. Smith: “We didn’t get counted correctly in 2010. And because we didn’t get counted correctly we lost a lot of resources. Every number that we count represents dollars for the community.”
And money in many federal spending programs — from Community Development Block Grants to road and transit money — is distributed by population and by demographic data such as poverty levels. The state estimates that it receives more than $15.5 billion in federal money that is based on census data.

“We have an issue. We have a serious issue,” said Smith, the national president of the anti-violence organization Mad Dads and one of three co-chairs of the Minneapolis Complete Count Committee. “We didn’t get counted correctly in 2010. And because we didn’t get counted correctly we lost a lot of resources. Every number that we count represents dollars for the community.”

Based on audits after the 2010 census, Minnesota likely had a slight overcount [PDF] compared to other states. That doesn’t mean that areas with more historically undercounted populations might not have been undercounted. The census analysis does not get down to the level of neighborhoods.

The nonprofit groups will work before the count begins next spring, teaching residents about the census and showing them how to respond to forms and — for the first time this census — complete the census online or on the phone. Only workers hired by the census will be doing the actual count, which will include knocking on doors of people who haven’t yet responded to mailed reminders.

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Trusted voices

The first batch of grants with state money is to build grassroots organizations to work directly with their own neighborhoods, with their own ethnic groups, with people who speak their own language.

“We’re the trusted voices. You are, actually,” Alberder Gillespie, census coordinator for the City of Minneapolis, told attendees at the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center. “We need those trusted voices out there talking about the importance of the census.”

It isn’t a lot of money, $750 per organization. But the Minneapolis Foundation will administer up to 400 such mini grants to be awarded before the end of the year. Some money is being set aside to do another round of grants next year once especially hard to reach communities are identified by early response rates. The money could pay for food at a meeting, printed materials, room rentals or even gift cards to entice attendance at a census information session.

In addition, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits is administering grants ranging from $700 to $5,000 using money appropriated by the Legislature and from a pool of money from foundations. The larger grants could be used by nonprofit organizations to hire canvassers to knock on doors to explain the census in hard-to-reach communities. The deadline for applications is Oct. 31.

Xiongpao “Xp” Lee: “Being counted in the census is a human right.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Xiongpao “Xp” Lee: “Being counted in the census is a human right.”
The final state budget deal reached in May set aside nearly $3.1 million for state census response — $2,339,000 to be spent from July 1 to June 30, 2020, and $739,000 the following budget year.

Of that appropriation, the budget requires that 45 percent be spent via the Council on Foundations to issue subgrants of up to $5,000 for what are called by the census “complete count committees.” The budget requires groups seeking money to register with the Census Bureau and “be a tribal nation, political subdivision, nonpartisan nonprofit community organization or public or private college or university engaged in census mobilization work in Minnesota.”

Among the goals of the budget language is to “engage historically undercounted communities and reduce census participation gaps in these communities compared to Minnesota’s historically high overall census response rate.”

Susan Brower is the Minnesota state demographer and directs the state Demographic Center under the Department of Administration. The budget also set aside money for her to hire more staff to work with the federal government to maximize participation.

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“So far it’s a lot of organizing organizations,” Brower said. Her demographic training makes her concerned that the census data be as accurate as possible.

“We know that the data that come out the other side are only going to be as good as the collection efforts. If they’re missed, the data are going to be poor quality and that’s what we’re going to have to live with for the next 10 years.

“This is not just a form that you fill out and the data never gets used again,” she said. “This is something that is used day in and day out by state government, nonprofits, in private business. We see it getting used.”

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.

That eighth congressional seat? Brower said the state is still in the running to keep it, adding to the need for a complete count. The state will have more information when the Census Bureau reports updated population estimates by the end of the year. It is that data that Election Data Services and others use to make estimates about gains and losses in Congress. 

“The last round showed us within striking distance,” Brower said. Minnesota has been gaining more than other states from domestic migration, that is, people moving from one state to another. And while the state is seeing lower migration from other countries, that affects all U.S. states, she said.

Brower said she is aware of concerns that the census itself could be a victim of computer hacking or other mischief such as was attempted with voting systems in 2016. Unlike many voting systems that have a paper record of each vote, this cycle’s use of on-line-only response has no such paper trail. But Brower said she feels comfortable that the bureau is aware of the threat and is prepared.

“It’s on their radar,” she said. “But we live in some pretty scary times in terms of how well our democratic systems are functioning right now and the census is one of those democratic institutions. It concerns me, but it doesn’t keep me up at night.”

Coordinating partners

Sam Fettig is a media specialist for the Chicago Regional Census Center, which is responsible for the census in Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. He said the Census Bureau encourages the work of complete count committees and encourages them to register with the bureau to help that coordination.

“The CCCs are part of our partnership program, which includes outreach to city councils, county governments, nonprofits, service providers and local media outreach,” he said. The work will lead up to the beginning of what is dubbed the self-response period when people can begin using online services to respond to the census. The Census Bureau does not distribute money to such groups but it does help with training and materials.

Next year, residents’ first contact with the bureau will be via a letter that invites them to go online and fill out forms. It also lets people know they can call in and dictate responses to a call center worker or request a printed census form.

Only if residents do not respond after three mailed notices will census workers knock on their doors. Fettig said the number of workers needed will depend on how many people use the online system. He said the census is aware that hiring thousands of temporary workers in a time of nearly full employment will be more difficult than in 2010, when the country was coming off the Great Recession. One idea is to offer part-time work to people who can work in the evenings or on weekends.

Because of concerns about trust, both the state and the federal government are trying to have the people who go door-to-door be from the communities they are working in. The Census Bureau wants to hire as many of the estimated 7,500 temporary workers from the local area being counted, even down to the census tract, of which there are 1,338 in Minnesota.

The pay varies by county. For example, Census Bureau workers in Hennepin County will be paid $20 an hour while those in Ramsey County will be paid $16.50 and those in St. Louis County will make $14. Mileage costs for use of private vehicles is also covered. All jobs are remote, that is workers don’t start in a central office but instead are issued a smartphone that contains the addresses of nonrespondents. The same phone is used to upload data.

There is no restriction on people who might have been paid by a complete count committee from working for the census and the census requires that any door-to-door work by those committee stop before the official count begins to avoid confusion.

The only restriction is that elected officials cannot be involved in census work.

Fettig said there is one historically undercounted demographic group that comes as a surprise to many:  young children.

“In 2010, after American Indian and Alaska Native, it is estimated that the largest undercounted group are children under 5,” he said. That could be because parents think they are too young to be counted or when custody is shared between parents and neither claims their children.