Politics and Government

Help wanted: Feds seek thousands of census takers in Minnesota

An envelope containing a 2018 census letter
An envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation's only test run of the 2020 census.
Michelle R. Smith | AP Photo

It’s not the most enticing job on paper: The work doesn’t start for at least five months, there’s a lengthy background check and the busy season happens once a decade.

That’s what the Census Bureau is facing in trying to hire census takers, the people who will fan out across the country this spring to knock on the doors of people who haven’t yet filled out their census form on paper or online. It’s the first time the once-a-decade, constitutionally required population count will be done mostly online, but the federal agency still expects plenty of people to forget or neglect to fill it out.

It’s going to be especially hard to find workers in Minnesota, which already has more job openings than there are unemployed people in the state. The bureau needs to hire 500,000 census takers across the country and as many as 7,500 in Minnesota alone.

“It’s going to be tough to be able to find the workers that we need to take a good census,” said Minnesota State Demographer Susan Brower. “But making sure we have it staffed well and we have people who are counting in their home communities is going to make a big difference in the quality and completeness of that count.”

There's a lot at stake in the 2020 census for Minnesota, which is one of several states on the cusp of losing a congressional seat depending on the count. Minnesota also gets $15 billion for services from the federal government each year that's directly tied to the census .

The Census Bureau is hosting events across the state this month to start the process of recruiting candidates. At a recent event at the Brooklyn Center offices of CAPI, a nonprofit that helps new immigrants navigate state systems, Neil Urbanski told possible job candidates that there are plenty of perks to working for the census.

The pay is anywhere from $14 to $20 per hour, depending on the county, and the hours are flexible, so it’s easy to do the work on the weekends or in the evenings after clocking out from a day job.

"It would be a great supplemental income for somebody. It's part time, flexible hours, work around your schedules,” Urbanski said. “So you can have a full time job, do this and then bring in some additional income."

The idea of getting out and knocking on doors appeals to Utica Hill, who recently moved to Minneapolis from Chicago. She doesn’t know many people in the city yet, and her day job is solitary.

"It would be a different experience for me, I never did this type of job, so just to get out here and socialize and talk to people, the work I do right now I'm mainly around one person all day,” said Hill, who walked out of the job fair with an armful of census information.

And it's important work. census takers serve as the last line of defense for getting an accurate count. In 2020, the Census Bureau projects that census takers may be responsible for recording up to 40 percent of the count nationwide. Minnesota has a better response rate than many other states, but census takers here are still expected to tally up roughly 20 percent of the total count.

They're especially critical for reaching hard-to-count populations, including young children, who many don’t realize need to be counted, as well as more transient individuals like college students and people living without stable housing.

It’s particularly challenging to count minority or new immigrant communities, who may not trust that a population count in their household won’t be used against them in some way (the information is confidential and used for statistical purposes only).

Etka Prakash, executive director of CAPI, said they're hoping to find census takers who live in the communities they'll be canvassing. "We really want people from the community,” she said. “People who have a trusted relationship."

She says for many, the biggest barrier is just a lack of information. The census only happens once in a decade, so people who recently moved to the United States probably weren’t around for the last population count in 2010.

"A couple of weeks ago we were doing some door knocking in Brooklyn Center with Asian head of household and we were all in the field and we realized people didn't even hear about the census,” she said. “That was kind of amazing, there is so much work to be done."

Thomas Schuler worked for the census earlier this year canvassing communities to make sure addresses were correct in the record.

He said working for the census is perfect for him. He’s 67, retired and living off of his Social Security income. He wants to raise enough money to spend a few months in Alaska this summer, right when the census work is finishing up.

“My only regret is that I probably won’t be around for the next one,” he laughed.

Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News