The city administrator of Wanamingo, Minn., is calling people he knows to help out with the 2020 census. Edina affirmed the right of counters to get into apartment buildings. Local leaders are drawing up plans to track down elusive residents at colleges, high-rises and even highway underpasses.
The once-in-a-decade task of counting every Minnesotan starts this spring and has to be wrapped up by the end of July. Just over three months remain before Census Day, April 1, the focal point of the nationwide count. More than 250 “complete count committees” across the state are developing plans to ensure everyone in Minnesota gets counted.
“I want people to understand that this is not just about filling out a government form,” said state demographer Susan Brower. “This is about our communities and the health and well-being of the people who live in them. We’ve got this little opportunity to make sure that this count goes smoothly.”
Census counts dictate things ranging from federal transportation spending to where retailers like Target locate their stores. This year’s count has major political implications in Minnesota, which could lose one of its eight congressional seats depending on the outcome.
A tight job market in Minnesota is making it difficult to find enough workers to fill census jobs, however. The bureau recently had to raise pay rates in the state — up to $27.50 in Hennepin County — to woo 38,000 people it wants to apply for upward of 7,500 positions. It has reached about 39% of that goal so far, with job offers slated to begin next month. More information is available at 2020Census.gov/jobs.
The public awareness campaign will also kick into overdrive next month, when the bureau begins a $240 million advertising blitz to spread the word about the count.
Groups are developing their own ways of reaching average residents. Minneapolis organizers soon plan to embark on a “Census Sundays” effort to raise awareness among churchgoers. LeadMN, a group focused on community colleges, plans to visit 2,000 classrooms across the state beginning in late January to promote the census.
In small-town Wanamingo, City Administrator Michael Boulton called up several residents he knew might have some free time to work part-time for the census.
“I said it’s important to the town,” Boulton said. “They thought it was cool enough to come take a look and apply.”
Brower recently sat down with a group of kindergartners in north Minneapolis to explain the upcoming tally. Young children are often undercounted.
“It hasn’t even happened since you guys have been alive,” Brower told the students. “Every 10 years there’s a count of everyone in the whole United States.”
There was an audible gasp from the class. “We live in the United States,” one child remarked.
Starting in March, the bureau will begin mailing out notices directing people to fill out the census questionnaire online. Unlike censuses before 2010, when some people received a “long-form” questionnaire, everyone will respond to the same nine questions. They largely pertain to the age, sex, race and relationships of people living in each household. See the form at tinyurl.com/StribCensusForm.
This will be the first census to rely primarily on online responses rather than mailed-in forms. State organizers are asking libraries across the state to serve as “questionnaire assistance centers” with dedicated census computers and librarians ready to assist people with their forms.
“We no longer have to worry about people finding their forms,” said Mike Dean, executive director of LeadMN. “They literally could just come into a local city library or a college library and they can actually begin that process and fill out the census form pretty quickly.”
Online response also allows organizers and the public to see, in real time, where responses are lagging and respond with additional resources.
“We’ll look for locations within that [census] tract that are high traffic,” said Minnesota Partnership Coordinator Sam Fettig. “It could be a library, it could be a place of worship, it could be retail. And we’ll send census staff there.”
Much of the effort will be focused on traditionally hard-to-count populations, including low-income people, renters, young children, people of color and Indigenous people. State officials say that, based on projections, about 17% of the state’s population won’t fill out the census form without a follow-up contact.
Enumerators are expected to make up to six efforts to contact people who have not responded, including in high-rise apartment buildings. Edina recently passed an ordinance bolstering a federal mandate to allow census takers access to apartment buildings, and the state demographer’s office wants the Legislature to pass a similar policy statewide this year.
Fettig recently briefed a group in Minneapolis on the process for finding and documenting homeless people, which will involve teams of census workers visiting known homeless encampments armed with tablets in the 24 hours leading up to April 1.
Everyone must be counted, including undocumented immigrants. The forms will not include a question about citizenship, despite efforts by the Trump administration to add one.
“This is a way to make your voice heard even if you — for example — can’t vote,” Fettig said. “You might have a felony or might not be 18. But everyone counts on the census. It’s a way of affirming that yes, we’re here. And we’re not going to be erased or silenced or ignored.”
Minneapolis is developing a “trusted spaces, trusted faces” initiative encouraging local organizations to create areas for people to complete the census questionnaire with people they know.
“We know they’re more likely to complete it if it’s with people that they have built a relationship with, that they trust what they’re saying regarding safety, regarding the information won’t be used against me,” said Alberder Gillespie, Minneapolis’ 2020 Census Project coordinator.
Disinformation is another concern. The Census Bureau is partnering with Facebook and Google to combat false information. Google said this month that it will take special care to block census e-mail scams on Gmail and pull YouTube videos that misinform people about the count. Facebook has banned ads aiming to mislead people about the census.
State officials and local communities have more resources to prepare than they did in 2020. The Legislature allocated about $2 million to the State Demographer’s Office for census work, compared with just over $700,000 in 2010.
A lot of that money will go to local committees scattered across the state. More than 130 committees have applied for — and 90 have received — mini-grants of $750 to begin census outreach work.
Isabela Alesna, a community organizer with the Asian American Organizing Project, said members of her group went doorknocking in north Minneapolis this summer prepared to talk about the citizenship question but encountered many people who were not familiar with the census.
“A lot of people hadn’t heard about it. And if they had heard about it, there was a lot of distrust of the government, of the census, like what are they going to do with this information? Why do they need this information?” Alesna said.
But public awareness is likely to rise quickly in the coming months.
“Activity around the census is really picking up,” Gillespie, Minneapolis’ coordinator, told a group in north Minneapolis recently. “With 2020 being just literally a few weeks away, everyone’s [saying], ‘Oh my gosh, the census is coming!’ ”
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper