Census puts a lot at stake — $4 trillion and a vote in Congress


The census, first required in 1790, is – as Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy says – “the very core of being American.”

When we were fighting the Revolutionary War, we were fighting for representation, and that’s exactly what the census has set out to do – represent us by counting us.

Every 10 years the census is taken to try to count every single person in the United States by sending each household a form to fill out. The form this year has 10 questions on it that ask things like how many people live in the house, their age, sex, race, and more. The data help tell the government where to build schools, roads, sewers, and more.

For example, the data collected in the census tells the government if there are a large amount of children in a certain area. If there are, then the government knows to build a school there. Companies like Target even use census data to decide where to build more stores based on population counts.

It is used in the same way to determine the number of representatives each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives. There are only 435 seats in the House total, and they are split between the states based on the percentage of the population that state has out of the entire country’s population. Minnesota could lose a seat – going from 8 to 7 –
after this census because other states’ populations have grown more, which will shake things up politically here and in Washington D.C.

With an estimated $4 trillion in funding coming from the federal government to states in the next 10 years – the amount of time before the next census – there is a lot depending on people filling out the census. According to Jeff Schneider, manager of special projects and research for the Community Planning Department in Minneapolis, the Census Bureau estimates that for every 100 persons missed, $1 million of federal funding is lost over the subsequent decade, across more than 170 federal programs that are distributed based on population size.

“It means your community doesn’t have the political power you should have,” Gillaspy said. “States and communities will lose federal funding for all sorts of programs.”

Reluctance to fill out forms

Although the census is very important, a lot of people are nervous about filling out the census forms, which will arrive in mailboxes this month. Many of the people who are reluctant to be counted are in the country illegally. Some worry that landlords will learn they have more tenants than allowed. Others are wary of government.

For example, a new group of people that is growing in Minnesota is from Myanmar – formerly known as Burma. The Burmese army is accused of killing Karen people, an ethnic group there, and forcing them out of their villages, according to Human Rights Watch.

It makes sense for Karen people to not all of a sudden feel like they can trust a government enough to send them personal information just because they are in America. That’s why the census bureau is enlisting the help of people in communities to build trust with efforts like the Complete Count Committees, which uses the help of community leaders to build trust in the census.

“People will listen to their own leaders long before they do to me,” Gillaspy said.

Ministers and priests in churches in Hispanic and African-American communities in the Twin Cities are encouraging members to fill out the census forms, for example. Census posters in Hmong, Spanish and Somali are being posted in stores along Lake Street in Minneapolis and University Avenue in St. Paul.

And Gillaspy’s department is encouraging elderly Minnesotans who go south for the winter to fill out their forms with their Minnesota addresses so that they’ll count here rather than in Florida or Arizona.

The census bureau has been working for four years to get the best possible list of addresses by doing everything from buying mailing lists from Publisher’s Clearing House to physically walking the streets to find unknown addresses, Gillaspy said.

Watch for your form

The census form will be mailed to every address on the list this month. When people receive the form they are supposed to fill it out and mail it back. If they do, their address gets marked off, but if they don’t, the Census Bureau will send a form two more times. If it still doesn’t come back, census takers will visit the address up to six times. The Census Bureau tries to hire neighborhood people to make the house calls

Gillaspy said that on some occasions there might be people who will really want to avoid the census. Census takers have sometimes gone to a house to find a gun pointed out of the window at them. “If they don’t want somebody knocking on their door they should fill it out and return it,” he said.

Avoiding census takers isn’t the only reason the census form needs to be filled out and returned. The census can do things like help figure out if there is discrimination taking place. “The only way to determine (if discrimination is taking place) is data,” Gillaspy said, like if the data indicates people of a certain race aren’t getting a certain kind of job.

Bottom line, Gillaspy said the census helps us know who we are as a country. It’s like a family portrait.

“Once every ten years we get together and smile for the camera and that’s the census,” Gillaspy said.

Say cheese!

ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.