Minnesota’s participation ranking in the 2020 census has slipped from 1st in the nation to 11th because of a lack of follow-up that threatens to leave thousands of the state’s residents uncounted, according to local officials and advocates.
The 2020 census ends in just one month, and field workers are searching for the 12% of Minnesota households who haven’t filled out their form. Despite Minnesota’s top self-response rate — the number of people who completed the census themselves — the percentage of households counted lags other states because field workers have reached a smaller share of households that haven’t responded.
At a news conference Monday, local and state leaders joined census advocates to raise questions about the “nonresponse followup” process in Minnesota — particularly in Hennepin County — which began in August. It was held in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, an area dominated by Somali immigrants with some of the lowest self-response rates in Minneapolis.
One advocate, Monica Hurtado with the nonprofit organization Voices for Racial Justice, purposefully refrained from filling out her form to see if a census worker would contact her.
“No one has been to my door to ask me to complete the census,” said Hurtado, who lives in north Minneapolis. “I’m an educated, middle-class woman. My fear is that LatinX people and others who might be struggling are not getting any visits from the census takers and thousands of people will be left out.”
The State Demographer’s Office spoke with 70 Hennepin County residents last week who previously said they had not completed the census. Seventeen of them still hadn’t filled out the form, nor had they received a visit from a Census Bureau worker.
State Demographer Susan Brower said response rates are still low in communities of color, immigrant communities, Indigenous communities, rural communities and areas with many college students and apartment buildings.
“We’re left with concerns and questions about whether the 2020 census will count all of us,” Brower said. “On the ground I do hear stories like Monica’s that make me nervous.”
The U.S. Census Bureau responded in a statement Monday that it has implemented new strategies to reach people during the pandemic, including phone follow-ups, e-mails, additional mailers, more advertising, multilingual guides and “Mobile Questionnaire Assistance” locations in low-responding areas.
“The Bureau continues to host Mobile Questionnaire Assistance events throughout Hennepin County in the lowest-responding tracts, to encourage continued self-response,” the statement said.
Despite the anecdotal evidence of problems, the Census Bureau told Brower it is on track to finish follow-up efforts in Hennepin County in the next two weeks.
The U.S. Census Bureau has three offices in Minnesota. Brower wrote in a memo last week that the office serving Hennepin County has completed the largest share of the follow-up efforts, at 82%. It was closer to 50% in the Duluth and Rochester offices, which serve the remainder of the state’s counties.
Xiongpao “Xp” Lee, who is leading census work for the Minnesota Council on Foundations, noted that the Census Bureau originally planned to do follow-up work until the end of October. But last month the bureau announced it would end on Sept. 30.
“We know that some bilingual census takers did not receive assignments last week,” Lee said. “Other census-takers out of the Minneapolis office are being asked to go to Rochester or Duluth, or even out of state. We’ve also heard from census-takers who are frustrated with bad data that they are receiving for apartment buildings.”
Monday’s news conference was held at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Parts of the neighborhood have self-response rates below 50%.
“Language is a barrier,” said community member Abdizarak Bihi, a community leader who lives in the area. “And people are also afraid to complete the census for fear that their landlord might find out that there are more people living in their apartments and houses than the lease says.”
Much is at stake for Minnesota in the 2020 census. The count not only guides billions of federal dollars the state receives, but it will determine whether Minnesota loses a congressional seat.