Census director committed to improving census count

The director of the U.S. Census Bureau says he came away from a visit to North Dakota earlier this month with a commitment to ensure the 2020 Census captures the growth that is occurring.

“Some of the things I saw first hand were kind of eye opening,” director John Thompson said Wednesday, having visited North Dakota in early May. “In Williston, looking at the tremendous growth that’s transpiring and all the building that they are doing and the growth that’s happened, I don’t know if I have ever seen that kind of concentrated, rapid growth anywhere.”

Thompson, who plans to write about his North Dakota visit on his blog on census.gov, said the first challenge with that growth will be to get new addresses into the system so that census workers can connect with new residents for the 2020 count.

“That’s the immediate concern. A longer range concern is how do we explain to people as we get closer to the census, the importance of getting counted,” Thompson said.

Census counts attempt to track where people are living at a point in time, which often is determined by where they sleep. A concern raised in western North Dakota is that some new workers in the state aren’t being counted, possibly intentionally if they are afraid that by listing their current residence they will lose residency in another state.

Thompson said the Census Bureau is a statistical agency only and all information is confidential. Working with local entities to get the right message out will be important to the 2020 count, he said.

While in North Dakota, Thompson also visited with tribal officials who have concerns about the census.

Pete Davis, director of Turtle Mountain Housing, Belcourt, said the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa conducted its own population survey in participation with four South Dakota tribes as part of the Dakota Pilot Project. That count showed a population 15 to 17 percent higher than the census numbers.

“The biggest thing we found is over-crowding in homes. When you look at the Native American population, they don’t consider themselves homeless because their families will take them in,” Davis said. A January point-of-time survey found that 1,401 Native American residents in Rolette County fall under the definition of homeless.

Lack of housing on the reservation means multiple families might share a residence, in violation of public housing codes. Residents are reluctant to provide a count to a census worker because of fear it could jeopardize assistance on a reservation where unemployment can be as high as 65 percent, Davis said.

A second issue is that the census questionnaire is flawed in asking people to identify themselves as Native Americans rather than as enrolled members of federally recognized tribes, Davis said. The result is federal funding goes to areas where it doesn’t benefit people in need, he said. Davis estimated that flawed census figures cost the Turtle Mountain tribe $200,000 to $300,000 a year in housing grants.

“Which is a lot of money for our tribe to lose,” he said.

Davis suggests the Census Bureau work more closely with tribes that have their own scientific survey methods and rely more on those local counts.

“We would love to work with the tribes,” Thompson said. “We would also love to get some of the information they have collected and bring it into the Census Bureau.”

He added that the bureau wants to use more automation and technology to communicate with the public. The Census Bureau is exploring the use of social media to help connect with people better and generate greater response.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who had invited Thompson to North Dakota, said it is important to get the count right for the proper allocation of federal resources and to ensure western counties are adequately represented in the state Legislature.

“I wanted him to see the kind of rapid growth and kind of difficulties we think we are going to experience,” Heitkamp said. “We need to get some mapping done in the oil patch. We need to get addresses. We are finding this same problem within the postal service trying to figure out how we are going to deliver mail and identify folks with real addresses.”