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The biggest peacetime mobilization of manpower in U.S. history cranks into motion over the next few days, its goal to try to count every one of the more than 300 million people who share these borders. But census promoters are on the defensive even before the work begins.
Nowhere is their anxiety more acute than in Minnesota, where failure to account for as few as 1,000 people could mean the surrender of a seat in Congress for the first time in decades.
Census advocates are facing criticism from forces on the political right such as Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has complained that the census has strayed from its bare-bones Constitutional origins, and sometimes as well from the left.
Minnesota is an unusual place for a debate about the census, demographers say, because it's typically one of the most reliable participants. State Demographer Tom Gillaspy is trying to rally audiences to "beat Iowa" by posting the nation's highest voluntary response rate. The two states tied for that distinction in 2000, the most recent count.
Along with the potential loss of a congressional seat, there are other high-stakes issues: Roughly $7 billion in federal money flowing to the state annually -- more than $1,300 per person -- is tied to census findings, according to the Metropolitan Council. The council and other governmental groups use it to help decide where to put roads, schools and other public facilities.
Yet Bachmann's declaration this year that she will take part only in the headcount and refuse answers to other questions, combined with similar critiques elsewhere, has everyone from the national director of the Census Bureau on down scrambling to emphasize the census' red-white-and-blue heritage.
Getting the word out
The pushback was vivid one recent day as Mark Ritchie, Minnesota's secretary of state, arrived for his third census-promoting speech of the morning. The DFLer looked at ease; he was addressing students and professors at a college in St. Paul.
With a sly smile, without mentioning names, he talked about the "black helicopter crowd," the far-right faction openly questioning the census. How ironic, he suggested, that the titans of American capitalism such as Target Corp. rely on the census for their most important decisions.
Suddenly, a student caught Ritchie off guard with a missive from the other side of the political spectrum.
"So you're saying," the young man said, "that big corporations use this data to know where to go to crowd out small family businesses."
Faced with such pushback, Census Bureau chief Robert Groves noted in a recent blog entry that Thomas Jefferson directed the first census in 1790. And James Madison suggested most of the questions.
"Jefferson himself wanted more than just a headcount," said Steve Ruggles, director of the Minnesota Population Center. "It's true the Constitution doesn't mandate the collection of other information -- but all the Founding Fathers agreed on that," and it's been done that way ever since.
Census data gets used to prove points by folks on all sides. Ruggles, for example, is using it to work with the New York Times on a research project on family issues throughout U.S. history. It will trace trends that some social conservatives deplore, such as rising rates of young children without both parents present, and a trend toward more unmarried cohabitation.
"A major part of my role in state government," Gillaspy said, "and a huge role for the census, is to raise the floor for these debates. You're welcome to your opinions, but facts are facts. We need a basic floor of facts, and then people can respond to those differently."
Every day, for decades already and for decades to come, people sit at computers at the University of Minnesota's West Bank campus, scanning census records and putting them into 21st century databases.
Last week, Rich Brantseg was peering over recently released 1930 census logs from Minneapolis's Fifth Ward, houses on Stevens Avenue not far from downtown. One of the most striking things about the list was all the unrelated people in so many homes.
Homes were kept full
"Boarders, lodgers, domestic servants, everyone had 'em in those days," said Ron Goeken, who as data services director oversees the operation. "You might have a large family, then the oldest child moved away, and you put that space to use. Times were tough."
The irony: In today's economy, that's getting to be an issue again. One thing Gillaspy is trying to confront is people's reluctance to admit that they have more people in their home than a city, township or a landlord allows.
"Please report that even so," Gillaspy said. "That individual level of data is never released" -- or not for the better part of a century. "But we do need to know how common that's becoming, because that's how programs and work gets started to prevent or resolve that issue."
And with Minnesota razor-close to losing a congressional seat, he and others are extra eager to count every single Minnesotan. That means snowbirds, and newborns.
"Any baby born on April 1 or before should be counted. Please, people, make sure those babies are counted,'' Gillaspy said. "It's not always the biggest worry of new parents, but it adds up. And if people are expecting real soon, please hurry up!"
David Peterson • 952-882-9023