By James Robins
It’s the federal government’s job to conduct the census, but local governments also play a significant role in ensuring an accurate and complete count. Reviewing lists of addresses and promoting participation in the 2020 Census are critical jobs for cities.
This can be a major undertaking for any city, but it’s especially challenging for small cities, which often don’t have the resources to easily handle the extra work. Still, it’s important to make it a priority to get a complete count because of the dollars attached to population numbers.
One person completing their census form is worth $1,532 per year, or $15,320 per decade, in federal money to the state, county, and local communities. That estimate doesn’t even include state funding, such as local government aid, which uses census data to calculate amounts.
Congressional representation is another reason for a complete count. Minnesota currently has eight representatives in the U.S. House, but it is at risk of losing a seat with the new census counts.
Many of Minnesota’s small, outstate cities are considered “hard to count.” That’s why State Demographer Susan Brower has led nine workshops across the state to teach communities about forming Complete Count Committees. More workshops will be offered soon.
Complete Count Committees are established by local governments, community leaders, and volunteers to increase awareness about the 2020 Census, and motivate residents to return completed forms.
In 2010, an estimated 14,695 Minnesota households were in tracts that didn’t receive the mailed questionnaire, which resulted in nearly an 8 percent undercount in those tracts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. You can find community-specific data on the Census Hard-to-Count 2020 website at www.censushardtocountmaps2020.us.
As part of the Census Bureau’s Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) initiative, local governments were asked to review the Bureau’s address file for accuracy, and supplement it with new or overlooked addresses. For very small cities, which usually have little or no staffing help, that task is extensive and burdensome, says Wendy Pederson, clerk-treasurer for the City of Franklin (population 476).
Jess Rich, city administrator of Floodwood (population 528), agrees. “It is very time-consuming for small cities because we don’t have the technology of the larger cities,” Rich says. Larger cities and most counties use sophisticated geographic information system mapping to speed the process.
The LUCA operation for Franklin involved 42 pages of listings, with 31 of them requiring corrections that took hours to complete. Floodwood also had to manually work out significant address discrepancies to complete the LUCA process.
Another roadblock to getting a complete count is a lack of internet access. The Census Bureau will encourage people to complete their census questionnaires online, but that may not be an option for many rural communities.
Brower notes that areas with inadequate internet service will receive the paper questionnaire, as they have previously, and any household can request the paper census form.
It is also a problem when people “choose not to participate in the census because of a general distrust of government,” says Andrew Virden, the state of Minnesota’s new director of census operations and engagement. It’s important to convey to residents that the census is completely confidential.
Some people don’t believe that and worry that the information could be used against them if, for example, they are an undocumented immigrant or they owe back taxes. However, it is illegal for the Census Bureau to share personal information from census forms with any other government agency or even with the president.
These are just some of the obstacles small cities face in getting a complete count. Virden emphasizes that the state is available to help, and encourages cities to contact him with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 201-2507. The state also has many online resources to help cities at https://mn.gov/admin/demography/census2020.
James Robins is a communications and policy specialist for the Minnesota Association of Small Cities. He is also the principal for Robins Consulting. Contact: email@example.com or (612) 597-0214.
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