Why is the Northland such a challenge for Census workers?

The big push for the 2010 Census begins this spring when thousands of workers fan out across northern Minnesota verifying every structure and address.

The big push for the 2010 Census begins this spring when thousands of workers fan out across northern Minnesota verifying every structure and address.

Their goal is to make sure Census forms are sent to valid addresses and to get back as many completed forms as possible. The fewer forms they get back, the more homes they'll have to visit in person to get a complete count.

That's a particular concern in northern Minnesota, where the response rate last Census largely was below par. While counties south and west of the Twin Cities boasted an initial response rate of 70 percent or more in 2000, nearly every county north and west of the metro area had response rates below that mark.

"I don't know the exact reason why the response rates are showing the way they are," said Kenneth Falk, the Census Bureau office manager in Duluth, whose territory includes nearly every Minnesota county with low response rates. He didn't work for the Census during the 2000 tabulation.

In the end, virtually every person is counted, Census officials say, through a door-to-door follow-up system. But Falk said he's not taking any chances. He wants northern Minnesota to improve its response rates to make sure no one is missed.


"With the economy being what it is, that's a lot of federal money we could lose just by not counting a few hundred people," Falk said.

It's unclear why response rates in some regions are better than others, said Shelly Lowe of the Census Bureau's public affairs office. She said rural areas normally have a higher response rate, and that's true in much of Minnesota.

Minnesota boasted a survey response rate of 75 percent in 2000, with many rural counties in the

southern part of the state reporting 80 percent or more. The national response rate was 67 percent.

Researchers have found that whether someone fills out the census survey has a lot to do with factors, such as poverty levels, how transient they are, how close they are to media outlets where they might hear Census messages and other cultural factors. Falk said the count can be challenging on American Indian reservations, an assertion borne out in Mahnomen County, home of the White Earth Indian Reservation. The county's response rate of 29 percent was the lowest in the state in 2000.

When necessary, crews from other parts of the state or nation will drive to undercounted areas. During the 2000 count, an American Indian crew from Idaho was brought in to help with counting on a northern Minnesota reservation -- but the hope is to have locals count their own.

"It's easier when you know, 'Oh, Mr. Johnson lives down this road,'" Falk said. "That's what's going to give us the good response rates."

He also pointed out that the more populated areas also tended to return their surveys more often than rural locations.


Duke Skorich, owner and president of Duluth's Zenith Research Group Inc., which does nationwide polling, also said responses from very rural areas can be a little tougher than in cities.

"Cook [County] tends to be a little slow," he said.

Skorich also pointed out that in very rural counties, the percentage easily can be swayed dramatically, based on a few calls.

In the last Census, Duluth and Hibbing had response rates of 77 percent and 73 percent respectively, even though the response rate for St. Louis County as a whole was between 61 and 70 percent.

And Grand Marais registered a 66 percent turnout, though Cook County as a whole had a rate of less than 40 percent.

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