Taking a few minutes to fill out the 2020 U.S. Census could mean up to $15 billion for Minnesota residents. That money is used for supporting Medicaid, highway planning, student loans, section 8 Housing, WIC, school breakfast programs and much more.

Michelle Chang is the policy and equity coordinator for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. She presented information via Skype at MAHUBE-OTWA in Park Rapids last week.

Ashley Charwood, Northwest Minnesota regional coordinator for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits in Bemidji, whose job involves working with people in the Park Rapids area, facilitated the event.

Historically undercounted communities

Chang said census participation is especially important for minority groups.

“In Minnesota, we have many communities of color and tribal members living on tribal land,” she said. “Also low-income housing, rural residents, renters, children under the age of five and seniors are undercounted, along with the hidden homeless.These are folks who may not get counted because the head of household filling out the survey thinks it is only for people who live there all year and don't count those who are couch surfing.”

Charwood asked who should count those “couch surfers” who stay with various family or friends throughout the year because they don’t have a home of their own.

“On the survey form, it asks who is in your house on April 1, 2020,” Chang said. “Usually count them if they are there that day or if they usually reside there most nights. If anything, it’s better to overcount than undercount. Even if he’s not in your house when you’re filling out the form, if he does stay in your house more often than he doesn’t, you can count him in your census form.”

Chang said she is part of the Hmong community where fears of deportation make people hesitant to share information with the census. She said those fears are unfounded.

“There are a lot of people who are worried about sharing information with the census,” she said. “Folks are afraid of ICE coming to their door, wary of government officials or people they don’t really know knocking on their doors. That’s why we want to encourage people to respond as soon as possible.”

Census timeline

An invitation to respond online to the 2020 Census will be sent out March 12-20, followed by a reminder letter March 16-24 and a reminder postcard March 26-April 3. Those who have still not responded will receive another reminder letter and paper questionnaire April 8-16.

“April 20-27 a final reminder will be sent out and April 28 census workers will start doing non-response follow ups,” Chang said. “That’s door knocks. If they don’t get you by the third try, they will ask your neighbors how many people they see going in and out of your house and fill it out that way.”

Census Day is April 1. “That’s a day of recognition, a time to hold special events to celebrate,” Chang said. “We want to encourage people to fill out the survey as soon as possible so we can avoid having to do the door knocks.”

The census is online for the first time this year and many communities are also setting up questionnaire assistance centers with computer access. The Park Rapids Area Library will be participating. More information will be available closer to census day.

The census is available in 12 languages in both the online and paper version. There is a separate form for tribal residents living on reservations. There is also a phone version for the census.

10 minutes can help gain access to billions

The census is taken every 10 years and only has 10 questions. Chang said for a single person it will only take about 10 minutes to fill out.

There is no question about citizenship on the census form. “The census counts everyone, regardless if they are a citizen or not,” she said.

Census results impact funding in several ways. The numbers determine how much federal money goes into counties for various programs.

Chang said census data is used to make decisions about where to put business and for determining representation in Washington, D.C.

“When a city is determining where to put a playground, they use census data,” she said. “They look at neighborhoods to see where there are the most children. They use the data for grants, too.”

In 2021, redistricting happens based on the census count. “Right now in Minnesota we have eight congressional districts,” she said. “If we get an undercount, we could lose representation.”

Chang said Minnesota receives about $15 billion per year for federal programs.

“This money is especially important for communities in Minnesota that are low income,” Charwood said. “We want to make sure people are counted and represented.”

A $750 complete count committee grant is available to nonprofit agencies to encourage participation in the census. The deadline is at the end of February. For more information, call 651-757-3078.

Census data is protected

All information provided on the census form is kept confidential for 72 years, by law. That includes name, phone number and address. At that time, it is released as historical data used in tracing genealogy.

Census workers are sworn in to protect this information. It cannot be accessed by ICE or any other agency.

Census workers have a badge. Call the office to identify it is a valid number. “You can do this before you even talk to them,” Chang said.

Instead of writing names on the census, Chang said you can identify people as “person number 1,” “person number 2,” and so on.