The American count is coming.
With less than two years until the 2020 census, groups across Minnesota are busy preparing for the tremendous task of tallying the state’s residents — from Bemidji to Brooklyn Park, Waconia to Worthington and everywhere in between.
Groups are organizing earlier than past decades amid questions about how the political atmosphere, a controversial question and fewer offices and field tests might affect the tally.
The census will influence critical decisions. Census data determine everything from how public funds are distributed to where retailers open new stores. And Minnesota could lose a congressional seat in 2022, depending on how its count fares against other states.
For the first time in 70 years, the federal government is planning to ask everyone in the country if they are a U.S. citizen. A number of local census advocates worry the question could suppress participation among the growing share of Minnesotans who are immigrants.
Advocates for Somali, Hispanic, Hmong, American Indian and other groups the Census Bureau considers at risk of being undercounted have been meeting since May. They will soon brainstorm which trusted leaders and tailored messages can persuade their communities to fill out the form.
“The more that you can get away from sharing your information, people think you are safe,” said Fartun Weli, whose nonprofit Isuroon is working with the Somali community on census preparations. “But we’re also saying, ‘No, you really need [it] to be known that you exist.’”
Last month, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed leaders to the state’s Complete Count Committee who will spearhead efforts to raise awareness about the census. More than 30 cities and counties have already created their own committees.
“This is not the government’s census, this is our census,” Bob Tracy, public policy director of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, told a group of advocates in Minneapolis last month. “This is data that determines what power [your] community has.”
Minnesota had the second-highest mail participation rate in the last census, but the 2020 count brings many unknowns. The bureau is switching to a more high-tech operation and reducing its Minnesota presence from eight locations to offices in Minneapolis, Rochester and Duluth.
People will be encouraged to respond online for the first time, but the bureau also has had to cancel field tests due to funding concerns in recent years. The Trump administration has said its decision to add a question about citizenship is meant to enforce voting rights. Others see it as a threat.
“There’s a lot of fear and a lot of insecurity because there’s been a national campaign that has been targeting immigrants and specifically families with mixed [immigration] statuses,” said Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, executive director of Navigate Minnesota, who has been involved in the effort.
The Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation hopes to boost participation in rural communities, partly by highlighting the consequences of being undercounted.
“Many of our partners … represent populations that are still not fully showing up in the census over time,” said foundation President Kathy Annette, a co-chair of the state Complete Count Committee. “For us, rural [Minnesota] in general doesn’t show up very well overall. And we also know young children — especially infants — immigrants, and Native Americans” are undercounted.
‘Supportive and excited’
Minnesota is one of a handful of places with state-level staff already dedicated to the census, located in the state demographer’s office. Demographer Susan Brower and her staff are often on the road prepping local governments about the census and encouraging them to form their own complete count committees.
“People have been really supportive and excited to get involved in this, which I didn’t think would be the case,” Brower said. “I really did think it was going to have to be kind of a salesman role for me.”
Local governments have been compiling an up-to-date list of mailing addresses. In Minneapolis, where new apartment buildings are rising every day, the city has been busy tracking down the unit numbers that will be occupied by the time the mailings go out in 2020.
This September, the Census Bureau’s Chicago regional office will begin recruiting hundreds of people to staff local offices, which will open in Minnesota next summer.
Outside of government, private organizations such as the Minnesota Council on Foundations and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits are organizing under the Minnesota Census Mobilization Partnership. Both organizations oppose the addition of the citizenship question, which a number of states — including Minnesota — are challenging in court.
The Mobilization Partnership aims to create Minnesota-specific messaging campaigns to boost census participation, based on community discussions this summer, which they hope to support with a $2 million pooled grant fund.
An army of field workers helps the census follow up with individuals who do not fill out the form — which can also be done online for the first time. Tracy, of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, said organizing has started earlier to encourage participation partly because there may not be sufficient bureau resources to follow up.
“Huge parts of the state where we have challenges engaging community are not going to have people on the ground on a day-to-day regular basis,” Tracy said, referring to the lack of offices in rural areas.
After months of concern about underfunding, Congress boosted spending for the Census Bureau earlier this year. Joan Naymark, leader of Minnesotans for the American Community Survey (MACS 2020), which advocated for the funding, said the group is “cautiously optimistic” about what has been allocated. But there remain consequences for underfunding the planning phase, she said.
“Because of that citizenship question and because of the nervousness around these tests, there are a lot of untested things that are coming to us in less than two years that the bureau will then need additional funds in order to do the door-to-door follow up questions,” Naymark said.
The census is sometimes called the largest mobilizing effort in the country outside of going to war. Bill Davnie saw that in 2010 as the leader of the Minneapolis office, an operation that grew from six people in September 2009 to upward of 1,200 the following May.
Field workers look for non-respondents everywhere, from high-rise apartment buildings to homeless encampments beside the Mississippi River. Using housing and demographic data, the bureau has mapped which areas will be hardest to count in 2020 — concentrated in the metro area around diverse areas like north Minneapolis, Phillips and Frogtown, as well as pockets of greater Minnesota.
During the last census, however, Davnie said they had no trouble finding qualified help in the middle of the recession. Now, the labor market is tight. “This is going to be tough, this time,” Davnie said.