COVID-19 could make it harder for census to count the already undercounted

If the traditionally undercounted can't be reached, Minnesota could lose a congressional seat and millions of federal dollars.

Minnesota officials fear COVID-19 restrictions could pose a challenge reaching already undercounted populations for the decennial census. 

Counting every single Minnesotan has major ramifications for the state and its counties, cities and townships. Federal and state aid are often apportioned based on a population-based formula. And, Minnesota is already on the verge of losing a seat in the U.S. House, whose 435 seats are reapportioned every 10 years based on the census. 

“This is a very inopportune time for this to happen,” said Andrew Virden, director of census operations and engagement with the Minnesota Department of Administration  “The census is not a top priority on people’s minds.” 

As of Monday, more than 40% of Minnesota households had completed the census, compared to a self-response rate of around 33% nationally. Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District has the highest response rate; more than 47% of households have already responded in the district that comprises the west metro suburbs. But Virden said early respondents aren’t the groups that pose the biggest risk of being undercounted.

Reaching populations that are harder to count — like renters, college students, immigrants and people experiencing homelessness —will be further complicated by COVID-19, Virden said. 

Minnesotans should fill out the census form based on where they are on April 1, known as “Census Day.” But efforts to reach people have been curtailed in order to comply with social distancing rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Usually, field workers would be out encouraging everyone to get counted with efforts ranging from door knocking to tables at community events and parades. Census takers were slated to start follow-up interviews with households who had not responded yet on May 13 — but that’s since been delayed. 

The census initially kicked off earlier this month, but last week field work was suspended until April 1. The Census Bureau recently announced further suspensions until April 15. 

Work to count people experiencing homelessness in parks, under bridges and other places has been pushed back from April 1, to be evaluated as the situation progresses. 

Outreach to college campuses has also been delayed. Students moving off campus should still fill out the census form as if COVID-19 had not changed their living situation. 

“College students are historically hard to get, with COVID-19 it’s even tougher,” Virden said. 

The Constitutionally mandated census has only been thrown out by Congress once in its history, in 1920. Rural conservatives in Congress killed that year’s census because immigration and the Great Migration of Black Americans from the Jim Crow South to northern cities was shifting power to the urban north, according to a 2017 article by Kenneth Prewitt, the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau.  

Minnesota could lose $28,000 in federal funding for every person not counted, according to the State Demographic Center.

Come Wednesday, census outreach will include more than 1 million text messages throughout the state, Virden said. In lieu of in-person contact, census team members will make phone calls. 

The deadline for self-response is now Aug. 14 but will be reevaluated as needed, according to a statement from the U.S. Census Bureau.