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Minnesotans prepare to make sure all rural residents are counted in census

ST. PAUL—Minnesotans involved in the once-every-decade federal census say now is time to take action so people do not find themselves victims of a bad 2020 April fool's joke.

In 2020, April 1 is Census Day, when all Americans are supposed to be counted in a ritual required by the U.S. Constitution. But some in Minnesota fear that federal funding shortfalls, using the internet to fill out census forms and other factors could mean many Minnesotans will be missed.

"I do think there are significant risks," Joan Naymark said. "I have never been more concerned in my 30 years of working with the census."

Counting people and where they live may not be the most exciting issue to the public, but Naymark and others involved in the census say it is vital

"It is all about money and power," said Naymark, founder of a volunteer organization dedicated to the census and a related survey. "Census is boring until you think it is all about money and power."

The money is government funding that state and federal officials often dole out based on population. If people are not counted in the census, their communities may get less money. The federal government gives local governments and states about $400 billion annually based on census counts.

Also on the fiscal side is money private companies invest, in part based on census data.

The power is about politics. Minnesota is on the bubble for losing one of its eight U.S. House seats, a seat it barely kept after the 2010 census. For rural areas, a census undercount could cede power to urban and suburban areas in the MInnesota Legislature.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has asked for $190,000 a year through 2021 to hire two people in the state demographer's office to make sure all Minnesotans are counted.

Republicans who control the state House and Senate have not included that money in their funding plans, which will be negotiated with Dayton in the coming weeks.

"We have a full-time demographer's office," said Chairwoman Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, of the House State Government Finance Committee. "This is part of their responsibility. ... They can do this with their existing funds."

State Demographer Susan Brower, Naymark and others say state and local governments need to take responsibility, especially since it looks like the federal Census Bureau will not receive as much money as its officials say they need.

While local governments need to help the federal Census Bureau check addresses, including making sure new ones are on the census list, not all have the resources, Brower said.

"We would like to make sure someone is filing in the gaps where local governments aren't being able to do it," Brower said.

Northern MInnesota counties with sparse populations and the state's largest American Indian reservations have some of the highest numbers of uncounted residents, Census Bureau figures show.

Figures from 2010 show Minnesota was second only to Wisconsin in filling out census forms, with 81 percent participating without reminders.

However, that rate varied among counties. Suburban Washington County recorded an 88 percent mark, while Lake of the Woods County on the Canadian border in northwestern Minnesota only hit 31 percent.

Rural minorities overall are the most likely to be missed, which predicts an issue some see in the 2020 Minnesota census. More immigrants are moving to cities like Worthington and Willmar to work in local industries, and many may not be familiar with the census or may not trust government.

Brower said immigrants who move often, such as those involved in seasonal agricultural jobs, are tough to catch.

Dr. Kathleen Annette, who heads the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation, said she was surprised to learn how serious the rural undercount could be.

Annette grew up on the Red Lake Reservation and is a member of the White Earth Nation, both in northwestern Minnesota., and worked for the Indian Health Service in Bemidji.

"What we have heard for many years is 'We don't have a voice,'" Annette said of rural residents. "Rural Minnesota feels they are not being heard ... (but an) accurate census can lead to a strong voice , can lead to us having the representation."

Like others in rural Minnesota, Annette said one problem she foresees is the Census Bureau move to collect more data via the internet. "Not all places have that access."

If people do not respond via internet, they can expect telephone calls, letters and perhaps even a knock on the door by census workers.

Just knowing where occupied homes are can be difficult.

Brower said census workers plan to use several methods to see where homes actually are, including address lists private businesses and local governments possess as well as satellite photos available from Google.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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