Minnesota's stake in the underfunded, understaffed census

Minnesota's 1.3 million renters, 1 million minorities, 500,000 college kids, and 350,000 children under five are among the people most likely to be overlooked.

Minnesota's 1.3 million renters, 1 million minorities, 500,000 college kids, and 350,000 children under five are among the people most likely to be overlooked. Star Tribune

The whole idea of the census is kind of crazy.

Every 10 years since 1790, the feds have tried to count everybody in America. First they mail out forms, which they hope people will fill out truthfully, then they send brigades of door-knockers to follow up with households that don’t respond.

Regardless of birth, death, and tax records, the U.S. Constitution explicitly states the census needs to be an actual count of actual humans, done the medieval way. 

We know from modern demographic tools that Minnesota’s got about 5.6 million people spread out over 90,000 square miles. Depending on our final count, we could lose a congressional district, leaving us with nine Electoral College votes and one less reason for anyone to think about us.

A smaller count also means a smaller piece of the $600 billion pie that the feds dish out to locals each year for things like public education and public housing, food assistance, Medicaid, highways, and law enforcement.

Minnesota gets $15 billion—or $2,800 per person—from the feds annually. All that cash is calculated using census data from 2010. Retailers rely on it to put stores where people live. Real estate developers and banks use it to get tax incentives in return for investing in areas determined to be low-income and in need of development.

The problem is the Census Bureau’s $3.8 billion budget is just half of what it was in 2010, even though more people now live in America, and the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office estimates the 2020 Census will cost $15.6 billion to pull off successfully. This year the agency will hire just half a million census takers, down 200,000 from 2010.

Andrew Virden, Minnesota’s director of census operations, says the Census Bureau is running half as many regional offices as it did in 2010. The entire state of Minnesota will have three, located in Duluth, Minneapolis, and Rochester.

Minnesota’s spending $2.2 million of its own money to assist in the census. It's a pittance compared to New York state’s $60 million and California’s $189 million, but more than most states’ allocations. Another 21 states spend exactly nothing. 

Hennepin County is putting up $320,000, and Minneapolis $350,000. Ramsey County is spending $165,000, St. Paul $60,000. “And then it’s everyone else, and there aren’t many of those,” says Virden.

The bureau is still struggling to fill census-taker positions in Minnesota, which pay a competitive $22 to $27.50 an hour in the metro. They need more applicants—especially bilingual people—to explain to folks that the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out the citizenship question, and by law individual census data must be sealed for 72 years, meaning, for example, your landlord can’t use it to evict people for having extra roommates.

On the bright side, the 2020 Census is online for the first time. You can find information about filling it out here.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Census can now be completed online. It will become available next month, if everything goes smoothly. We apologize for the error.