The task of counting everyone in the United States might seem like it would be somewhat simple with all the satellite and computer technology available these days. But the census is conducted in a more low-tech fashion. It's done by mail.
In early 2010, the federal government will mail census forms to every household in the United States, with hopes that everyone living in those homes will fill them out.
Census figures help determine how many U.S. House seats each state will have. Barbara Ronningen of the state demographer's office says, in the next census count, one of Minnesota's eight seats is at risk.
"At this point, we're on the cusp. We could possibly lose one of our congressional delegates. So one of the reasons we're pushing very hard to get a good accurate count in this census is to retain that eighth congressional seat," she said.
The census, which is required by the Constitution, also helps determine how much federal money will flow to state, local and tribal governments -- another reason an accurate count is so important.
In the past there have been complaints that not everyone was counted, particularly from those in communities of color. Lester Collins, director of the State Council on Black Minnesotans, says he believes the black and African populations in Minnesota were undercounted in the past, and he fears they will be again.
“We're on the cusp. We could possibly lose one of our congressional delegates.”Barbara Ronningen, state demographer's office
"The African population will definitely be unless we increase the participation, trust levels and involvement of African individuals in this process," Collins said.
One way the census is trying to increase participation and trust is through what it's calling Complete Count Committees. These are city and county committees, as well as committees for the four largest racial and ethnic groups in the state: Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and Africans and African-Americans.
The idea is that the people involved in these committees can reach deeper into their communities than the census can on its own, generating the trust that can lead to greater participation, especially among immigrant populations.
Jonathan Rose is the president of the Sierra Leone Committee in Minnesota. Rose says the experiences that bring some immigrants to the United States in the first place could be obstacles that keep them from participating in a government census.
"For the Sierra Leone community, a large percentage are refugees. And they're refugees because they fled from war. And they fled because they were persecuted for, amongst other things, trying to vote a government out of power. So there's that instinctive distrust of government," Rose said.
For some immigrants who may be in the country illegally, there may be a fear of government. But officials say immigration status doesn't matter to the census. The information collected is confidential and won't be used against anyone.
Still, other obstacles could prevent people from being counted. Bao Vang, executive director of the social service organization Hmong American Partnership, says the faltering economy also plays a role.
"With the housing crisis that we're in right now, a lot of people are homeless. There's also a lot of people that are living together, two, three families in the same apartment building," said Vang. "And there's a fear that if they let people know there's that many people living there, that they may be evicted. So we're trying to alleviate these fears."
That's to make sure the count is accurate. Vang says a lot of manpower is needed to do that -- and the census is hiring. About 8,000 people statewide will be hired for the 2010 count.
The U.S. Census Bureau will officially open its St. Paul office Dec. 2.