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Census pivots to new outreach methods amid coronavirus

Minnesota News Brief graphic
Minnesota News Brief graphic
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ST. PAUL — Census organizers are enlisting the owners of approximately 2,700 apartment buildings in their efforts to count the renters who make up the state population.

Kits containing educational material on the 2020 census in several languages have already been mailed to building managers across the state. It's a move that comes in response to a pandemic that makes in-person outreach difficult, if not unsafe.

Roughly 70% of households have voluntarily responded to census mailers so far, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Normally, it would fall partly to census takers — or numerators, in bureau parlance — to follow up with the remaining 30%.

But with COVID-19 still spreading in the state, infecting approximately 28,000 Minnesotans and killing more than 1,200 as of Wednesday, June 6, organizers have had to think up other ways to count the population while protecting public health. Counting those considered hard to reach remains a focus for census officials.

"We really are trying to reach folks who are likely not to respond to their census forms," said Susan Brower, of the Minnesota State Demographic Center. "That’s something we have pretty good information on from past census and other surveys."

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For a multitude of reasons, officials say, low-income households and ethnic minorities, as well as renters, have been under-counted in previous censuses. That can affect not only their representation in government, given that census information is used in legislative redistricting, but their community's access to population-based government funding.

We Count Minnesota, a regional census coalition, targeted public housing and low-income housing complexes in addition to privately owned ones with its educational kits. Each one contains posters and notes on how tenants can respond: online, by phone or by mail.

Between 2014 and 2018, Minnesota's share of owner-occupied houses averaged 70%. Whether and how that figure will change depends on numerous factors too difficult to estimate in advance, Brower said.

Wages, household sizes and the price of rent itself can all have an effect.

The kits, meanwhile, have the potential to reach roughly half a million Minnesotans, according to the Census Bureau.

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