Editor’s note: The Trump administration has decided to print the 2020 Census without a citizenship question, the Justice Department confirmed to BuzzFeed and CNN on Tuesday, July 2.
“I’m a really big census nerd.” That’s Minnesota Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan talking.
Leading up to the 2010 Census, Flanagan spent almost a year training organizations across the country to reach members of typically undercounted communities—communities of color, rural communities, Native communities—while working for the nonprofit Wellstone Action. By the next Census Day—April 1, 2020—the Census Bureau’s goal is to dispatch door knockers and mail forms around the U.S. to generate the most accurate count of living humans in this country. It has happened every 10 years, going back to 1790.
“One of the reasons why I am so geeked out about the census is because you have to see me,” Flanagan says. “And as a Native American woman, there are plenty of policymakers who would prefer that I was invisible, and that the Native community was invisible, and that the undocumented community was invisible. It’s a radical act of saying, ‘I have to be counted, and you have to see my community, and they have to be counted. We are here.’ So, in some ways, there’s a bit of activism, too, in filling out that census form.”
Another reason she’s geeked? It’s her job. As a member of Minnesota’s executive branch, she is even closer to our population’s composition and the policies that follow. For every Minnesotan we don’t count, the state loses out on a share of billions of dollars of federal aid.
“To put it in real terms, for every individual, we get $2,800 per year, so over the course of 10 years, that’s $28,000 in federal investment in the state, so that’s real money,” Flanagan says. “It impacts the way we are able to educate our population, the way we get and deliver healthcare, the way communities are invested in overall.”
A State’s Stake
Nationally, other regions’ populations are growing much faster than the Midwest. And depending on how many go uncounted, Minnesota could lose one of its eight U.S. House seats, getting redivided into seven districts instead of the current eight. When the 2020 presidential election comes along, our number of electoral votes could drop, as well.
In general, though, Minnesota has been well-counted. In 2010, the state was the second most responsive to the census, with 81 percent filling out forms. Next year’s count debuts online participation and will provide real-time response rates. The U.S. Census Bureau wants to complete 90 percent of the 2020 Census online, which poses a challenge for rural Minnesota, where internet access gets spotty. In these cases, census takers can work offline, and those with limited connectivity will get census forms by mail.
The 2010 Census undercounted roughly 2 percent of the U.S. population—not bad, historically, due in part to federal money that got census workers out door-knocking. The Census Bureau plans to open regional offices in Duluth, Rochester, and the Twin Cities, but federal funding for the 2020 Census has been at its lowest in three cycles. State and local governments have had to step in, as has the Minnesota Council on Foundations, rallying nonprofits and community leaders to help maximize efforts to minimize undercounting.
Counting the Undercounted
The strategy to improve the count begins with learning where undercounted populations live. These include the homeless, the young, and the isolated; immigrants, renters, and people living in poverty; and rural residents, post-secondary students, and kids under 5, says Andrew Virden, director of census operations and engagement for the Minnesota State Demographic Center.
“I was in Edina speaking with the League of Women Voters,” Virden says, referring to a grassroots organization. “You think of Edina—geez, Edina doesn’t have a census problem. They’re affluent. They’re in good shape.” But in apartments south of Southdale Center, he says, you can find young and foreign-born residents, historically undercounted.
“The fine folks of Edina or Albert Lea or anywhere else in the state maybe don’t want to hear from the guy who lives in Minneapolis and works in St. Paul,” Virden says. Even less from a badge-carrying government official.
Instead, Minnesota’s 60-plus ad hoc Complete Count Committees have worked to activate community members, by way of community members. “At the temple, or during weekend soccer, or cricket, or baseball,” Virden says. The League of Women Voters posts up at Target and grocery stores.
“I can go downstairs in the mosque or church basement,” he continues, “and a fellow congregant will be there, who looks like me, speaks my language, and understands this whole census thing.”
The economy has seen a downturn since 2010, meaning fewer residents can take on that extra job of helping to get out the count.
But CCCs have hosted dinners and held workshops, in libraries and community centers. They answer questions—about distrust of census information going online, about how it’s OK for neighbors to tell census workers who and how many live in unresponsive residencies, and, especially, about the citizenship question.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed a new question on the census asking, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” Some folks living south of Southdale Center are not U.S. citizens, Virden says. Many fear the question would discourage undocumented immigrants from filling out their forms. (The Supreme Court blocked inclusion of the question on June 27. After hoping to delay the census, to push a citizenship question through, the Trump administration decided on July 2 not to print such a question on the 2020 Census form. Nonetheless, when it comes to an accurate count, many experts say the damage has already been done, according to the New York Times.)
Partially for this reason, the Urban Institute predicts 2020 will see the worst undercount of Latinx and black people since 1990.
To visualize the effect: You need a head count to plan a party—to have enough chairs, to know who is coming. The census is our time to prepare for the next decade. A better head count means that fewer risk going unseen, hungry, and underserved, in a state population approaching 6 million.
“[Census data is] like a raw ingredient in so many things,” says Duchesne Drew, a former Star Tribune staffer who now works for the Bush Foundation in St. Paul. “You may not see or taste it as you go about your daily life, but it is very much there. It’s shaping decisions around everything from schools being built, to prisons being built, to where grocery stores are gonna go—how life plays out outside the windows of your house or office.”
6 Minnesotans Keeping Track
Xiongpao “Xp” Lee moved to Minnesota out of college for two big reasons: the arts and the Hmong population.
“Back in the ’90s, we knew that California, Minnesota, and the Carolinas were like the three main hubs of the Hmong community,” Lee says. After the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, Lee’s parents moved to California from Thailand, with Lee as a baby. They then moved to South Carolina for his dad’s work as a mechanic.
Lee got his degree in graphic design there. Soon, he learned about the nonprofit Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, up in St. Paul.
He made the move, started volunteering, and fell in with the nonprofit community. Today, he works for his adopted hometown of Brooklyn Park and also serves as the lead organizer of the Hmong American Census Network.
Since founding the HACN last spring, Lee has been able to connect the data points that led him here. When deciding where to build, businesses consult demographic information culled from the census. BMW had opened a plant in South Carolina, creating the labor market that drew in Lee’s father.
Minnesota ranks near the top for government arts funding per capita, and the National Endowment for the Arts uses census metrics. Moreover, Lee wanted to go where people with similar backgrounds already had some representation.
We have known, since the 2000 Census, that the Twin Cities host the largest concentration of Hmong Americans in a metropolitan area. Nationwide, the count stood at some 260,000 Hmong residents in 2010. “But everybody says we’re undercounted,” Lee says. “So, where are we really? Are we at 300,000? Are we at 350,000? Are we at 400,000 Hmong people in the United States?”
We also know that the Upper Midwest is beginning to rival California in total number of Hmong residents.
“For the nonprofits, for the business owners, for the schools, for those involved in civics, it means trying to understand how the community will grow in terms of its political power, economic power, and social power,” Lee says. “And then how do we, as the Hmong community, want to leverage that?”
As recent immigrants, Lee says, Hmong folks are still settling in. He sees lack of knowledge as the main barrier to an accurate count. “We were still in ESL classes in 1980,” he points out. “In 1990, we were just starting to create our first nonprofit organizations. In 2000, we were just getting established in our cities and in our industries and jobs and careers, and having children.”
In 2010, the first Hmong state senator, Minnesota’s Mee Moua, put out a two-minute PSA about the census. “Which is, like historic, you know?” Lee says. “Now we’re looking at 2020, and we’re like, OK, everything is just coming together.”
The Hmong community has a lot to gain. The Pew Research Center, which relies on census data, has shown that 28 percent of the national Hmong population live in poverty. Of those who go to college, only 14 percent attain a bachelor’s degree.
Issues faced by Hmong residents don’t characterize all Asian Americans. Hmong respondents must check “Asian” on the census form, then write in “Hmong”—something Lee stresses. This helps organizations like the Hmong Chamber of Commerce, say, lobby for enough state funding to aid young, eager Hmong entrepreneurs.
A new app, the Response Outreach Area Mapper (ROAM), has made such demographic distribution easy to see. It updates as residents fill out census forms online.
“You can see which tracts have high Asian populations—like, in St. Paul and in Brooklyn Park,” Lee says. “And if you know what we know, then you know that ‘Asian’ is synonymous with ‘Hmong’ in those cities.” The app lets Complete Count Committees know where to deploy door-knockers with foreign-language skills—such as Lee’s wife, whose Hmong is excellent, he says.
For Lee, civic engagement could begin only after he found his own voice. With a flair for poetry, the newcomer joined a small spoken-word group in the Twin Cities. “There were issues in the Hmong community at that time that a lot of artists took up, right?” he says. Hmong back in Laos, for example, were still being persecuted.
Recent southeast Asian history has not encouraged faith in government. But Lee sees the everyday need for that relationship.
On its website, the HACN tells the story of the Yang family. They moved to Missouri in an immigrant wave, and the state granted them more than $60,000 to start a teaching farm. The Hmong community grew from 26 in 2000 to more than 1,300 in 2010. By knowing its population, Missouri had boosted its economy and helped ensure new residents’ success.
“Tens of thousands of Hmong lives were heroically lost as American allies in one of the fiercest conflicts in U.S. history so that we, their survivors and descendants, could have the hope of coming to and thriving in America,” the story continues. Whether they make their presence known—“It affects everything,” Lee says. –Erik Tormoen
In 1956, the Indian Relocation Act furthered U.S. efforts to erase Native American culture. It coaxed American Indians into cities, stripping them of tribal status.
Some assimilated. Shelly Diaz, urban liaison and project coordinator for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, thinks of her mom, who came to Minneapolis from the east-central Mille Lacs region because of the new policy. “She married a white man; she did the beehive hairdo,” Diaz says.
But many got lost. They arrived to discrimination, segregation, and meager jobs, unable to return to now-dissolved reservations.
The act added to the poverty, homelessness, and alcoholism disproportionately affecting Native Americans. Today, we see its political legacy at the Hiawatha-Franklin homeless encampment in Minneapolis, deemed the “Wall of Forgotten Natives” by inhabitants.
For these reasons, the U.S. Census Bureau labels Native Americans, in urban areas as well as greater Minnesota, “hard-to-count.” But only fairly recently did the census try to count them at all. Until 1900, more than a century after the first census, the government identified reservations specifically to not include them, since they didn’t pay taxes—thereby shirking federal responsibility.
“Housing, education, and healthcare are treaty obligations of the U.S. government,” Diaz points out. For 2020, she has worked with the Minnesota Council on Foundations to tackle historic undercounting, of nearly 5 percent of Native Americans in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—more than double the next closest undercounted group and actually much higher by some tribal estimates. “If there’s no Indians left,” she says, “how [is the government] supposed to honor the treaties?”
The term “hard-to-count” in part refers to Native cultural differences. “We are very mobile,” Diaz explains. “We don’t do the nuclear family thing. We do couch surfing. I mean, that’s just part of our community, that we live with family.” If residents of a subsidized housing unit exceed the occupational limit—with, say, seven people instead of two—they might underreport for fear of getting kicked out.
To answer concerns, Diaz points to Title 13 of the U.S. Code. These laws bar the Census Bureau from sharing private information. Penalties include a five-year federal prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.
Still, historical trauma runs deep. “A lot of Native Americans used to have social workers come look for their kids. They’d try to take them out of the house, taking them to boarding schools, foster care. Trying to ‘save the man, kill the Indian.’ There’s just this general distrust of government collecting information.”
Diaz felt proud, though, when she filled out her first census form in 2000. She had just bought her house in Maplewood. “Making sure that we’re counted—that’s exercising our sovereignty,” she says. Every band member not counted costs their tribal government an estimated $3,000 in federal support. “Do you want your kids to have more opportunities in school? Do you want to have better roads? Do you want more housing developments, and more businesses built here?”
Unfortunately, actually filling out a form can get sticky for Native Americans. Since 2000, anyone checking off more than one box in the race category counts as “multiracial.” Not, in other words, as American Indian. “So, when they ‘multirace’ people, there goes the count,” Diaz says. Tribal affiliation falls away.
She checks only the “American Indian or Alaska Native” box, even though she’s biracial. “It kind of bothers me that I have to deny one part of myself in order for the other part to count,” she says. “I’m proud of my Irish heritage.”
The estimated 7 percent of the population that’s multiracial will grow three times as large by 2060, according to Pew Research. Categorization will have to change to reflect the diverging ways residents identify. And there’s not a lot of time.
“This count that we’re doing in 2020 is going to affect us until 2030,” Diaz notes. “In our culture, the Native way is to think about seven generations. We think about our kids’ kids’ kids. What’s going to affect them?” –Erik Tormoen
Abdurrahman Mahmud and Kali Mohamed
Inside the buzzing Capitol Cafe coffee shop in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Abdurrahman Mahmud and Kali Mohamed are deep in animated conversation. While sharing sabaayad, a traditional Somali flatbread, these men detail their wishes that the 2020 Census sees the state’s growing immigrant community.
How many people of Somali descent currently live in Minnesota? That depends. It’s about 70,000—the highest concentration in any state, and more than one-third of an estimated 175,000 nationwide—according to the Census Bureau’s 2017 Annual Community Survey data. But ask some Somalis, and you’ll get a much higher number.
“Counting the ones born here, the number would be more than 100,000,” says Mahmud, a coordinator for Mixed Blood Theatre’s Project 154 and advocate for immigrant rights. “If it’s fully counted, and fully categorized, I would expect 140,000-150,000.”
Why is there such a huge discrepancy between what the community sees and what is reported? Within Somali immigrant populations, undercounting can happen because of language or cultural barriers, or a bit of both.
For immigrants who spent time in refugee camps, any authority figure—including census worker knocking on doors—can raise suspicion. Mahmud gives the example of a grandmother living in public housing who has non-family staying with her, some of whom could be undocumented or have other immigration challenges. “She believes you are from the government and you are there to control how many people live there,” he says. “If there are any irregularities, she fears she will lose her public housing. Then, whatever question you ask, she denies.”
Mahmud describes another scenario: An African immigrant born in Kenya is counted as African-born, but what about their children born in Minnesota? On a form, they could be African-American. “But they will never see any resource that is allocated for African Americans,” he argues. “Because in the reality they are part of the African immigrant community. How do we deal with that blind spot? If you are undercounted, then you will be underserved.”
Where those numbers land show whether an immigrant population is multiplying or subsiding. That affects the way we see ourselves, and how outsiders see Minnesota. “To an immigrant, the census is like buying a car—you go to the Carfax,” says Mohamed, vice president of Minnesota Young DFL and heads the Somali Care Foundation. “The Census will be the Carfax for the humans that live in Minnesota. ‘Can I connect with the individuals that call this place home?’”
He adds that Somalis don’t just call the Twin Cities metro area home. They’ve found homes in Rochester, Willmar, Owatonna, Faribault, Fargo/Moorhead, Winona, and St. Cloud. “They really are changing the narrative,” says Mohamed. “The census will tell that. This immigrant community is so bold and eager that they say, ‘We’re going to live with communities that have never seen a black person.’”
Also part of that narrative shift, Somalis want Minnesota to know that their numbers are growing, but not just to pick up government assistance. “The level of enterprise in the community is super high, but it was never reported very well,” Mahmud says. “If we participate in the census, the subcategories that the statistics go with—home ownership, education, graduation, business, entrepreneurial, tech, farming—will come out and give the community a good reputation in the future.”
Mohamed cites McKnight-funded “The Economic Potential of African Immigrants in Minnesota” report, released in 2015 by Bruce Corrie, an economics professor at Concordia University in St. Paul. The biggest among many big figures within: African immigrants in Minnesota generated about $1.6 billion in annual income, and at least half of that is spent locally.
Making strides in the 2020 Census comes down to community outreach to leaders, to educate immigrant populations, Mahmud and Mohamed argue. Beyond Somali-born African immigrants, Minnesota has representation from Liberia, Ethiopia, and many more African nations—all with the potential for different regional dialects beyond the language they speak. “We need the message to the community to say, ‘This is your future,’ you will determine it for the upcoming 10 years after the census,” Mahmud says.
“If everyone is counted, it’s better for the state,” Mohamed adds. “It makes us better. It shows that our state is tolerant to diversity. It shows it is a welcoming state. Numbers matter, but the human connection is what we’re often missing.” –Reed Fischer
Emilia Gonzalez Avalos
The country waited, at press time, to know for sure whether or not the 2020 Census would ask, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
Proposed by the Trump administration, it was a question that raised further questions: Would answering be mandated? Would it scare undocumented immigrants from filling out forms? Would politicians use that information against states, through gerrymandering?
“Unfortunately, the census is becoming political,” says Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, executive director of Navigate MN/Unidos MN, a Latinx-based organization that supports local youth. “But it shouldn’t be.”
Title 13 of the U.S. Code protects respondents from identification, so the U.S. Census Bureau may not disclose the private information it gathers. “[The census] is really where it doesn’t matter your political affiliation, what your values are, whether you’re an immigrant or not,” Gonzalez Avalos says.
How officials use census data remains to be seen. But undercounting non-citizens ensures one outcome: inadequately funded schools, housing, and services.
Gonzalez Avalos thinks of her three kids—ages 3, 10, and 21. In Richfield, where she lives with her family, about 70 percent of students in the public schools are kids of color, mostly Hispanic. Richfield mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez, elected in 2018, is the first Latina mayor in Minnesota’s history.
Immigrants, especially African and Latinx, have changed the face of many overwhelmingly white Minnesota towns over the past 20 years—such as Richfield, Worthington, St. Peter, St. James, Faribault, and St. Cloud. “And when you go out on the streets,” Gonzalez Avalos says, “you see that the [census] count might not be accurate.”
Richfield especially could use the added investments. The local Rainbow and Bally Total Fitness have recently closed. In 2018, hundreds of affordable-housing residents left when an L.A. firm bought their complex. Those families pulled their kids from the district, slashing the number of teachers. Gonzalez Avalos drives her daughter to Minneapolis for school. Given more funding, though, she might not have to. “And if we don’t have a complete count,” she says, “that [investment] might not happen.”
Still, dread of the proposed citizenship question is very real. Danny McGleno ran Saint Agnes Baking Co., in St. Paul, until winter 2018. An audit from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sussed out that about half his employees were undocumented. Some of them changed names and moved away.
None whom McGleno asked agreed to speak for this story, even anonymously. “More than ‘frightened,’ a better word for it might be ‘frustrated,’” he says.
He adds that many felt baited: welcomed to St. Paul, with its effective sanctuary status, then targeted by the federal government. Why report to an authority that wants them gone?
“The people I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to and work with—they love St. Paul, and they want to see it grow, and they take pride in it,” McGleno notes. When it comes to filling out a census form, though: “They have no desire to,” he says. “They’re supposed to do it because, for legal citizens such as myself, it’s in my best interest, to get funding for my city and my state. But it’s just like siblings: If one keeps getting the bigger piece of the pie, the other’s gonna bark out sooner or later.”
“Fear and anger is a natural response,” Gonzalez Avalos says. “We should feel it.”
She notes that the Twin Cities have “separation ordinances.” This means Minneapolis police can try to build trust with immigrants but can’t stop a federal agency, like ICE, from doing its job.
“We are not in the business of gaslighting people’s fears,” she adds, of her work to combat undercounting.
Gonzalez Avalos herself comes from a mixed-status family: her children, U.S.-born citizens; her father, a Mexico City native. Since the late ’80s, her father has worked various jobs in Minnesota, from construction to janitorial. He can’t access state or federal programs. He might appreciate new infrastructure, as anyone living here would, but he can’t apply for, say, anti-poverty assistance if he ever needed to.
He did, however, get to see his daughter earn credits at Minneapolis College. She paid out of pocket, barred from federal loans. “He’s like, ‘I wasn’t born here, but I think I’m a good patriot,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Why do you say that?’ He’s like, ‘I brought the best that I have, and that’s you.’”
She feels similarly. If, by 2030, she has helped create a better-funded state for her kids by filling out a census form—so that her daughter can get the stress-free, “Channel 5 sitcom” education she couldn’t; so that her son can pursue his entrepreneurial goals in an even more business-friendly environment—then it was worth it.
“And I think we’re getting there,” she says. “But we’re not there yet.” –Erik Tormoen
In the quarter century since Duchesne Drew first moved to the Twin Cities, he has worked in two industries that heavily rely upon Minnesota’s demographic data. First, as a Star Tribune reporter and editor (which included overseeing coverage of the 2000 Census), and currently as the community network vice president at the Bush Foundation, a social services organization. –Reed Fischer
The census tells us who we are.
I was a history major in college, so I always had an eye for, “How did we get to now?” In waves of immigration, we’ve reshaped what this country is. [My wife and I] both have journalism at our core. It’s what brought us [to Minnesota], and what kept us here, ultimately. We’re both interested in understanding and helping others understand who we are, who we were, who we’re becoming.
My relationship with Minnesota goes back almost 26 years. Part of the attraction for me was knowing it was on track to become more diverse. I grew up in New York and went to school in Chicago. Both of those communities are far more diverse than Minnesota. When I moved here in 1993, it was far less diverse, and that made it less appealing, to be frank. It’s helpful to understand, especially when you’re young, where you want to buy a house, raise kids, and build your career. Not only where a place is, but where it appears to be heading. If this place wasn’t becoming more diverse, I’m sure we would’ve moved to a place that looked more like the America we wanted to live in—a diverse America.
At the Star Tribune in 2000, we predicted which communities would be growing and shrinking. Undercounting wasn’t as big of a concern 20 years ago, but there was a lot of concern about greater Minnesota communities shriveling up and dying. While that’s been the case in some places, it hasn’t been as dramatic of a shift. So many people who started life in Africa or Asia decided to make those communities home. What does it mean to be in a small town that’s been white and Christian, and suddenly they have a bunch of brown people who come in who speak a different language, have different faith, have different ways of moving in the world? That’s happening in the Twin Cities as well.
The census tells us who needs help.
It’s about making investments to help us prepare for the future. The Bush Foundation [social services organization] cares a lot about making sure that everyone is seen—which includes everyone being counted. The census is an important embodiment of that. If we’re not doing a good job criss-crossing the region talking to, counting, and understanding the issues of everyone here, we’re going to get it wrong. People in different walks of life, different stations in life, need different things. Whether that’s schools, housing, education, or healthcare, it’s so important to understand who is here and what their needs are.
The census depends on everyone.
There has always been an awareness that the numbers were only as good as the count. The count is driven by a lot of factors, including how much we invest in organizations that put boots on the ground, knock on doors, and promote the importance of taking the census. Crossing not just geographic lines—all across the state, physically—but also thinking about the different communities and making sure the message is being spread in Indigenous, Latinx, Asian—domestic born and foreign-born—and African and African American communities.
So many people in our society are just trying to get to the next day—they’re not necessarily paying attention to things like the census. In the same way that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and other brands spend a lot of money building awareness to sell their products, we need to make sure the census is framed as something that is for everyone.
The census waits for no one.
Census data is going to be used, whether it’s accurate or not. It’s not like we can ignore it and go, “Ah, it’s not that good.” If anything, in an environment where on a federal level they’re really underspending and underinvesting in getting a good count, if Minnesota can get a better count, we have a relative advantage, I would argue. I don’t know if all the other states out there are going to make the investment.
A lot of people don’t understand the tie between filling out the census and whether or not there’s funding for roads and bridges and schools and healthcare and a whole host of other things that might seem detached from it. But they’re very much driven by what people tell us about themselves and, when you roll it all together, about their communities. It’s not just an academic exercise, but it drives really important decisions that have implications that last decades.