Taking count: Minneapolis works to tally every resident in 2020 Census

2020 Census logo. U.S. Census Bureau.

As Minnesota prepares to launch efforts to ensure every state resident is counted in the 2020 Census at an April 1 kickoff event in St. Paul, wheels in Minneapolis are already in motion.

“We’ve actually been doing quite a bit of work with the census,” Karen Moe, deputy director of Neighborhood and Community Relations, told the City Council Feb. 28.

Moe has been leading the city’s efforts in preparation for the census, which is primarily housed in the NCR and communications departments, but has touched nearly every office in City Hall.

While much of the statewide attention on the census goes toward how many Congressional seats Minnesota will have next decade — recent projections have the state losing a representative — getting a total count is critical to cities for receiving federal funding and getting accurate data for its own records.

Despite a recent budget boost from Congress, experts say the Census Bureau has been underfunded this decade, which puts extra pressure on local governments to fill the gap.

“What states and localities can do is start the work now,” said Bob Tracy, director of public policy and communications for the Minnesota Council on Foundations, a nonprofit that has been advocating for the census.

Starting the work

The first move to prepare Minneapolitans for the 2020 Census came last fall when the city election guide sent to all residences included a message about the pending count and why it’s important to participate, as well as information about the large number of temporary local jobs affiliated with the census.

Moe said her team has been on a “census tour” in recent months with stops at a number of boards and commissions, including the advisory committee on aging and the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council, which spurred conversations with a number of health-related groups.

The arts will be involved too, Moe said. An application to the Creative CityMaking program has been made to get an artist that will visualize the census campaign.

The city received 20 applications to be part of the Complete Count Committee for Minneapolis. Complete Count Committees help build public awareness and are charged with developing a plan to reach their communities. All 20 applicants were approved by the Committee of the Whole Feb. 28

Some communities in the city, such as the Latino and American Indian communities, are interested in forming their own Complete Count Committees, Moe said.

Christine McDonald, the city’s American Indian community outreach specialist, said many people involved in the American Indian get-out-the-vote effort have expressed interest in forming a Complete Count Committee. Historical traumas imposed upon American Indians by the federal government are still felt today, she said.

“It’s not just undocumented folks who have fear of federal employees knocking on their door,” McDonald said.

Complete Count Committees can and should look different depending on who they are trying to reach, city officials say, and the model can be adaptable. Some may want to be more or less formal or call their group by a different name, something Moe said should be encouraged.

“At the end of the day this is about making sure everyone in our community is being seen and heard, and that’s through being counted,” Moe said.

Hard to count

Minneapolis was successful at getting residents to respond to the 2010 Census.

In 2000 the city had a 73 percent participation rate of people responding voluntarily by mail. A decade later, that percentage rose to 78, the highest in the nation among cities with more than 300,000 residents and fifth highest among cities with more than 100,000 people.

After the 2010 Census, the federal government assembled a Hard to Count Map, which identified census tracts across the U.S. with mail return rates of 73 percent or less. In Minneapolis, those areas were clustered around neighborhoods in Phillips, Near North and Lyndale-Central.

A census tract on the southeast end of Whittier had just a 62 percent mail response rate in 2010, according to the Census Bureau, which meant more time and money was needed to conduct in-person follow-ups to count nearly 38 percent of residents. The tract is majority people of color and 87 percent of tract residents were renters.

The tract directly south, which straddles Interstate 35W between the Lyndale and Central neighborhoods, had a 64.6 percent mail response rate. That tract was also a majority minority community in 2010 and about 57 percent of tract residents were renters.

Both tracts are among the hardest to count in the nation, according to the Census Bureau.

“We are focusing on increasing the participation rate within communities that are historically undercounted,” Moe said. “So, we’re going to focus our efforts on the hard to count census tracts.”

Census 2010 was considered to be a very good count, according to Janna Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs who studies undercount in the census. Part of the reason it was so good was a poor job market in the wake of the Great Recession, which led to a high number of overqualified enumerators, the people who do follow up interviews to reach households who don’t return initial census forms.

With a stronger job market today, she fears the pool of enumerators will be smaller and less skilled.

Hiring good enumerators, especially people who can connect with immigrant and minority communities, will be critical for Minneapolis to get a full count.

“It’s really important to have enumerators that speak the language and look like the people who they’re trying to collect data from,” Johnson said.

Record the babies

Johnson says there are two groups that are consistently undercounted in the U.S. Census: children under 5 and African-American men.

“We miss an incredible amount of young children,” Johnson said.

Undercounting children has been an issue going back decades, she said, and the reason remains a mystery. There are two potential explanations for this she said: people simply forget to enter every single member of their household and leave young children off, or the census is missing the entire household.

“For me that would be much more concerning … because that means we’re missing potentially an entire section of the population, which are likely much more disadvantaged folks,” she said.

Once African-American men reach 18, Johnson said, the census misses about 10–15 percent of them. Researchers say this is not related to disproportionate numbers of African-American men being incarcerated, because imprisoned people are counted, but rather a lack of permanent address or fear of talking with government officials.

Some populations, mainly affluent people, are overcounted in the census, Johnson said. College students are often counted both at school and included on their parents’ home forms, and people with multiple houses sometimes fill out forms from multiple locations or get reached by a follow up interviewer at their second address.

Citizenship question

A looming issue is the potential addition of a question of citizenship status, which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced would be added to the 2020 Census last year. The proposal is being challenged in a lawsuit that is likely to go before the Supreme Court.

The citizenship question was last on the census in 1950. While federal laws are in place to prevent other agencies from using census data, the potential addition has raised fears in immigrant communities.

“I think a lot of the damage has already been done,” Johnson said.

Even if the question is on the census, Johnson said it’s important to fill out the form. She said the added fears increase the importance of local efforts encouraging people to respond.

“It makes outreach and education even more important,” Johnson said.

Additional funding, access laws proposed

Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Minneapolis) has introduced legislation aimed at maximizing the response rate for the census in Minnesota by making it easier to send forms to people who get mail by P.O. Boxes and allowing census workers to enter multifamily buildings to conduct follow up interviews, like local campaign workers can.

“One of the big areas of undercounting is people who live in multi-family housing,” Long said.

Moe said the law could be a boost for Minneapolis, where 51 percent of the population rents.

The bill would also give $2.5 million, on top of Gov. Tim Walz’s budget proposal of an additional $1.6 million to the state demographer’s office, to promote education and outreach about the census, 45 percent of which would be administered to local governments and nonprofits via grants.

While the city and non-profit groups are working to build response rates in Minneapolis, many of those groups lack resources, Long said.

“We really need to muster all the funding we have for community groups, including historically undercounted communities,” he said.

As a former congressional staffer, Long said he saw firsthand how important it is for Minnesota to have as many delegates as possible. Projections for the 2020 Census right now have Minnesota losing its eighth seat to either California or Montana, with the difference coming down to potentially as few as 10,000 people, Long said.

“The threat of losing a congressional seat is something that should scare us all, and we’re on the bubble again,” he said

A report released in December by Election Data Services has Minnesota’s eighth congressional district ranked 437, just two back from the 435th and final seat.

Long is optimistic about the bill, scheduled to have its first hearings the week of March 14, passing with bipartisan support.

“The census shouldn’t really be a partisan issue,” he said.