WANAMINGO, Minn. — With mere months to go before the U.S. Census Bureau begins to count the population, efforts to recruit census takers and other temporary workers are ramping up in Minnesota.
Recruiters went after prospective job-seekers at career fairs and other events held throughout the state this month as part of the bureau’s drive to hire 500,000 takers nationwide. Because the positions are temporary and have flexible schedules, they are being pitched as a side hustle for those looking to supplement their incomes.
The re-branding of census work for the gig economy piqued the interest of a mixed crowd in Wanamingo in southeastern Minnesota, where takers stand to earn an hourly rate of $16.50. Six people filled out job applications at a recruitment event held there Thursday, Oct. 24, according to city administrator Mike Boulton, and among them were senior citizens and stay-at-home parents.
“We had a person who had done some overseas ministry and had just gotten back from that, and is kind of in transition,” he said.
Where households fail to complete the initial census questionnaires sent to them by mail, census takers travel door-to-door to follow up in person. Even though this will be the first census that can be responded to online or by phone, officials say that takers will still play a vital role in ensuring an accurate count.
By hiring takers locally, officials are attempting to reach Minnesotans in rural and remote parts of the state who might be more inclined to answer the door for someone they recognize or are familiar with. The same strategy, they hope, will pay off in the ethnic minority communities that have historically been considered “hard to count.”
“The messenger is just as important, if not more important, than the message itself,” said Xiangpao Lee, an organizer with the Minnesota Census Mobilization Partnership.
That's as true for the state’s tribal reservations, Lee said, as it does for its Somali and Hmong communities. According to a report by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, as many as 29,500 Minnesotans could go undercounted in the 2020 census.
According to bureau data, 81% of Minnesota households filled out and mailed in their questionnaires for the 2010 census. Rochester, Minn. saw one of the highest rates of mail-in participation of any city for that census at 83%.
Concerns abound, however, over a lesser response from elsewhere in the state. In a census tract in northern Cass County, which for example encompasses part of the Leech Lake Reservation, the bureau estimates that the rate of response to its annual American Communities Survey between 2013 and 2017 was only about 67%.
Even in the Twin Cities area, Lee said that he often hears from Hmong residents who believe they are more numerous than the 2010 census suggests.
Some attribute low response rates to a lack of trust in government. And even though the bureau is bound by law to keep respondent's information confidential, Boulton said that census is dogged somewhat by privacy concerns.
Others, he said, might not respond for the same reason that they don't apply to be takers: their jobs, errands and families take precedent.
"People’s lives are so busy and crazy. It’s not like everybody’s home at night at 5:00," said Boulton, who is involved with Wanamingo's census committee. "That’s a hardship everywhere."
The effects of undercounting in the census, meanwhile, can be varied and severe. Undercounted populations might not, for example, be taken into account when electoral districts are apportioned or redrawn.
Along with other factors, census data is also used by state and federal agencies to determine where funding needs to be allocated. Boulton estimated that being off by even 25 people for his city of 1,100 could result in a difference of $75,000 in funding over 10 years.
"We're about three or four miles off of being on U.S. Highway 52, so we're looking at trying to get an overpass here," he said. "Getting funding through the feds for an overpass here is pretty big deal."