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Continued: Census: Reaching the hard to count

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 11, 2010 - 8:19 PM

With the 2010 census beginning next week -- and plenty riding on the numbers -- Minnesota officials have been pushing hard to win the trust of immigrant and ethnic groups to get them counted and, if possible, to hire community members to help tally their neighbors.

A complete count is critical because census information is used to determine how nearly $400 billion is distributed annually for 170 federal programs, including social services, development and other types of grants essential to many communities. A city stands to lose $1 million over the next decade for every 100 residents not counted, the Census Bureau estimates.

Population totals are also used to apportion the 435 seats in the U.S. House, and Minnesota is teetering on the edge of losing one of the eight it has held since the 1960s.

The underlying issue for census-takers is a mistrust that many immigrants and other minority groups have for government, officials said. Some of these people are illegal immigrants who fear deportation. In other cases, people come from nations with repressive governments or are too unfamiliar with the U.S. system to understand why the census is important.

"We are building trust and rapport with ethnic groups, and hopefully we will get as large a response as we can right off the bat to the mailed questionnaires," said Bill Davnie, manager of the Minneapolis census office. "It's a substantially larger effort than ever before to get in better contact with our community partners."

The effort goes beyond the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul to places such as Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, which have sizable Liberian, Hmong and other immigrant populations. Like Minneapolis, the two suburbs have census promotions on their city websites. Brooklyn Center officials were meeting this week with community groups to ask them to encourage their members to complete census forms, said Vickie Schleuning, assistant city manager.

"We are trying to target areas we believe have those pockets of language and cultural differences," said Gary Van Eyll, who manages the census office for Carver and Hennepin counties, excluding Minneapolis.

The Census Bureau also has placed public service messages with ethnic newspapers and radio stations, he said.

Checking addresses

Minneapolis started census preparations in 2007, and last year the City Council approved $100,000 for the effort, mostly aimed at reaching hard-to-count residents, said Jeff Schneider, a city planning manager.

The city began by checking address lists compiled by the Census Bureau and found that they omitted 2,600 homes. The bureau has agreed to add about 2,100 addresses and is reviewing the rest, Schneider said.

Many cities have created "Complete Count Committees" that include members of diverse backgrounds. They encourage ethnic, community and other groups to spread the word that personal information provided in census questionnaires will be kept private, said Sarah Hernandez, co-chairwoman of the Complete Count Committee in Minneapolis.

She said the committee, which has about 30 members, started meeting last summer in Latino churches, a mosque and neighborhood community centers. The group talked about how to customize efforts to reach different ethnic groups. For example, Somali members discussed the best wording in their language to express the idea that it is important for everyone to be counted, she said.

"So many immigrant groups have fears around participation in anything that is government initiated," Hernandez said. "Especially in the Somali community, some have fears about leaving their homes because of the new things in this country."

She said that many Somalis live in the Cedar-Riverside towers and that a high-rise association will try to connect with residents to allay their fears about being counted.

'There's a big push'

Last week, at a job fair in Minneapolis, Cynde Hanson was trying to recruit census-takers of various backgrounds. "We are trying to hire Somalis, Hmong and others with the language skills to explain what we're looking for, that it's confidential and we're not going to turn you in," she said.

In January, a census recruiter attended the Many Faces of Brooklyn Park event that celebrates Liberian, Hmong, Hispanic and other cultures found in the city.

"A lot of people stopped," said Cindy Sherman, the city planning director who sat next to the recruiter. "There's a big push to delve into our immigrant community. A lot of people living here don't understand that it's just the government wanting to know how many people there are."

John Bartee, executive director of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, said he thinks the last census under-reported the number of Liberians in Minnesota by about 20,000. His group, based in Brooklyn Park, is distributing brochures, using its automated phone system to send census messages to 9,000 Liberians and contacting pastors of 41 Liberian churches in the Twin Cities.

"We want our people to be counted," Bartee said. "We tell them to fill it out and drop it in the mail ... It's important because it has to do with representation and funding. It's quality of life."

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658

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