Minnesota is upholding its reputation as a national leader in participating in the U.S. census, ahead of a regional push this week to remind Americans to be counted.
More than 71% of Minnesota households have filled out census forms so far, making it the top state in the country. The national response rate is now about 62%, with a month left before census workers go door to door searching for people who haven’t responded.
“Minnesota has always had a very high response rate in past censuses,” said Marilyn Sanders, the Census Bureau’s Chicago region director. “But since the start [of the 2020 census] Minnesota has been at the top and it’s stayed there.”
Starting with the Chicago region, which includes Minnesota, regional census offices will work to get the word out in the coming weeks.
“As many people as we can get counted now, we don’t have to knock on that door,” Sanders said.
A lot is at stake in this year’s count. Minnesota is on the brink of losing a congressional seat because of faster growth in other parts of the country. The state narrowly avoided losing the seat in 2010, when it also had one of the country’s highest response rates.
As it has with virtually every other activity, the pandemic has disrupted the 2020 census. Normally, thousands of census workers would have gone into the field in May, but that work was delayed until August. Libraries that were supposed to be census information hubs have shuttered, and events to raise awareness about the count were scuttled.
Census takers are now expected to be in the field until late October, rather than finishing up in late July.
“We’re in a big experiment,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the City University of New York graduate center, which has been mapping response rates around the country. “We’re hopeful that the extended time frame will give us the ability to boost response rates, but we don’t know.”
Romalewski said some parts of the country have surpassed their 2010 self-response rates, including Michigan and Wisconsin. Minnesota is close to reaching its 2010 self-response rate — the percentage of households that filled out the form before census takers began tracking down those who haven’t responded.
Minnesota State Demographer Susan Brower said there have been lower response rates in parts of the Twin Cities, such as Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside, Phillips, the North Side and around the University of Minnesota. Rates are also lower in rural areas with large Indigenous populations.
“I’m happy with that overall number, but we still have a long way to go with some of these areas,” Brower said.
Brower’s office has been training volunteers to call people in areas with lower response rates. As part of the push this week to remind people to fill out the forms before census takers go door to door, Brower’s office is trying to arrange 50,000 calls this week.
Volunteer Maggie O’Connor has been making calls three days a week in sessions lasting 2 ½ hours — or about 200 calls. Most people she reaches say they have filled out the form, but she helps people who haven’t done it yet.
One woman said she doesn’t have a computer, for example, so O’Connor suggested that her children could help her fill it out. Recently she has called a lot of young people, many of whom say they’ve been meaning to fill out the census form.
“One person said, ‘Would you set me a deadline?’ So I gave him a deadline,” O’Connor said.
The bureau has even had to charter boats to reach some Minnesotans. Most people receive census forms by mail, but for people living in remote areas with only P.O. boxes, staff drop off the forms in person through a process called “Update Leave.”
Census workers needed to travel by boat to reach households in some parts of northern Minnesota, Sanders said. The Update Leave process has largely wrapped up, with the exception of the Red Lake Indian Reservation. A census tract in the Red Lake area has the lowest response rate in the state.
Red Lake Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki said further discussions are planned this week about accessing the reservation. He has told census staff that many of his members are wary of opening their doors when people come knocking. And many can’t afford computers or cellphones to complete the form.
“They want to go house to house,” Seki said. “What I told them is that they better have a tribal member along with them.”