COVID-19 crimps census plans

Reminders like this one outside the Moorhead Fire Department prompt local residents to complete the online U.S. Census form. Paper forms will be mailed to those who don’t respond toward the end of April. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Social distancing and Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order have thrown a monkey wrench into a project where it literally counts – the 2020 U.S. Census.
Like other communities, Moorhead has had a corps of volunteers working for the past year to heighten participation in the census. Mandated by the Constitution, the every-10-year count of all who live in cities and Clay County has a decade’s worth of outsize impact on government. Not only will that total determine whether Minnesota’s population justifies maintaining its eight congressional districts. It also determines the state’s and cities’ share of federal funding between 2021 and 2030 – $15.5 billion in federal appropriations that filter to the state through 55 highly diverse programs.
“Every person who is counted represents about $28,000 in funding over the next ten years,” Josh Huffman points out. Along with planners Robin Huston and Kim Citrowske, he heads the Community County Committee of two dozen local leaders that has spent the past 12 months developing a list of promotional ideas to insure that Moorhead’s citizenry is accurately enumerated.
The pandemic and ensuing recommendations to reduce social contact and shelter in place have disrupted those well-laid plans, as they have so many good intentions, large and small. If all had been normal, Moorheaders and their neighbors would have been hearing about the census every time they turned around – in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the High Plains and Woodlands Pow Wow at MSUM, displays on college campuses, and booths at all kinds of community gatherings. A ward-by-ward challenge had been planned, too, to highlight the importance of counting every single Moorhead citizen.
Instead, the city planning department is left with a stock of promotional items that may never be handed out, from notepads and stickers to 3,000 brightly colored Chapsticks bearing the census logo that would otherwise have been handed out along the parade route and other events.
But the show must go on – and it’s rolling right now at an appropriate social distance. The first phase of data collection is being carried out online. Mail-in forms will be sent later this month to people who have not responded.
Other plans are on hold. Help centers were planned at the Moorhead Public Library and City Hall to help citizens without internet access. A corps of temporary Census Bureau employees was to have been trained by now to go door to door, visiting households that haven’t responded. Instead, they’re on stand-by for at least two more weeks, depending on how the situation develops. Eventually, they’ll be deployed door to door in hard-to-reach areas, including some rural and new American households.
The whole project was to have been wrapped up by July 31. Instead, the timetable has been extended. Right now, it’s pushed back by two weeks. It may go even later. After that, the results would be sorted and cross-checked for duplication. The final numbers must – by law – be presented to Congress by Dec. 31.
Clay County has been doing well in the first, online phase. According to Huffman, it’s in the lead in the seven-county area that includes it, with 42.2% of households already responding to the mailers they received in March.
Residents can log in and complete the brief questions at, using a unique 16-digit code included in the two mailings that have already landed in their mailboxes. They can also register their information on the telephone. Those who have not used either method by the middle of the month will receive a mailing that can be completed on paper and returned by mail. Only those who fail to respond by any of the three methods will be receiving a personal knock on their door … when those visits are deemed safe again.

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