For one thing, it determines how much aid we get from the government for Medicaid, food assistance, transportation, and countless other programs. In 2010, Minnesota received $15 billion in federal money based on our statewide headcount.
It also determines how many seats the state gets in Congress. We currently have eight, but we’ve been teetering on the edge of losing one for decades. Projections for 2020 show it’s going to be another squeaker.
Because the average person doesn’t follow those trends, every 10 years state officials try to make Minnesotans care about filling out government forms. It isn’t easy. State Demographer Susan Brower will candidly confess she's had trouble getting public television hosts to see the U.S. Census as “interesting.”
“Unfortunately, not everyone is born a census nerd,” Census Information Officer Jo Herrera admits.
Luckily, there are nerds in high places who can help spread the word. That’s what Last Week Tonight host John Oliver did on Saturday’s season finale. The HBO show featured a meaty segment on the census, including an interview with Brower herself. (The parts about Minnesota come in around the 6:00 and 7:00 marks.)
The segment also included a quick clip from Circle Pines, Minnesota – a small town whose struggles to be properly counted have prompted City Council Member Dean Goldberg to don a mask and take on a new identity as… we kid you not… “Census Man.”
Goldberg found out he was going to be featured on national television in an email last week, and he was “laughing” while he read it.
“I’ve gotten calls from friends all over the country,” Goldberg says. Some of his own family members were shocked to see him on primetime wearing his blue Census Man cape.
Goldberg admits it's a “goofy” gimmick. (He points out Census Man actually has a tragic backstory about coming from a large family and never being counted as a child.) But he couldn’t be more serious about getting the word out. Back in 2010, Circle Pines only counted 4,918 of its people—82 shy of the 5,000-person threshold for state funding toward street maintenance.
“If we fall below 5,000, we don’t get any money,” he says.
They literally can’t afford for the feds to miss anyone, which is easy to do in remote communities like Circle Pines.
Census enthusiasts hope the John Oliver bump helps boost Minnesota's numbers.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of reasons for you to become a makeshift Census Man in your own right. Federal money helps us feed, educate, and power our cities. Or do it because our voice in Congress gets louder the more people we count. Or, as Oliver frames it, do it to spite Republicans and Donald Trump for deliberately suppressing the census count so it's easier for them to hold onto power.
“[Trump's] administration already clearly thinks that certain people don’t count,” Oliver said. “So, what better way to get back at him than to make sure that you do?”