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U.S. Census: 10 questions = 10 minutes

Erma Vizenor, chairwoman of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, discussed the importance of the U.S. Census in a press conference Monday morning at Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Local officials addressed the community Monday morning as they urged area residents to take the "10 minutes" required to fill out the form for this year's census.

"This is really an important opportunity for our city, our region," said Mayor Richard Lehmann during a 30-minute press conference at Bemidji City Hall.

Speaking during the press conference were Lehmann; Erma Vizenor, chairwoman of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe; Jim Hess, superintendent of the Bemidji School District; and Rich Gerdes, assistant regional census manager for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Lehmann focused mainly on how the census will prompt redistricting for the election of legislators - both for those serving in St. Paul and those serving in Washington, D.C.

"Someone who is an elected official today ... may have to run sooner than they expected," he said.

If a district, or city ward, changes, an already elected official may find that he or she needs to run again in a different ward, Lehmann noted.

Hess discussed the impact the census has on the local schools' budgets.

The "extremely important" census determines the amount of federal financial support for schools, Hess noted.

While just 6 percent of the Bemidji School District's budget comes from federal sources, Hess said, that totals about $3 million.

Federal dollars go toward some programs, such as those targeted at assisting homeless students, special education students and those in remedial math and/or reading.

"(They) are all dependent on federal sources and an accurate count," Hess said.

He noted that a previous census did not have accurate counts from the area and the school district suffered. The school district lost federal money while the number of kids living in poverty increased.

"It was a very hard decision to reduce programming and personnel," Hess said, "even though the need was still there."

Vizenor agreed that census is very important, noting, that American Indians, especially, need to be represented.

Minnesota has 11 Indian tribes, of which the White Earth tribe is largest, she said.

But what makes it difficult to get an accurate census count, Vizenor said, is the lack of trust between Indians and others.

"There is a lot of mistrust, mistrust from us as Native Americans, as American Indians," she said.

She described a housing situation in which a grandmother might own a residence and have two or three other families, including grandchildren, living there.

Because housing requirements might stipulate that one residence should house one household, that family may not answer the door when the census comes knocking.

Those people are afraid of eviction, Vizenor said.

"Trust is something that the U.S. Census really needs to work on and be aware of," she said.

She urged the census to consider employing Indians to canvass reservations.

"We need to be counted," she said.

Gerdes discussed three terms that describe the census: safe, simple and important.

He said it is safe because the census is confidential. The law governing the census, Title 13, guarantees the confidentiality of census information, and establishes penalties for disclosing this information.

It has been challenged several times, Gerdes noted, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Title 13 is as secure a law as there is," he said.

This year's census form is, particularly simple, Gerdes said, because there are just 10 questions on it.

"This will be the shortest and most simple census we've had," he said.

While it is being said that it takes 10 minutes to complete, Gerdes said it could take just five minutes for a small family.

As for the census' importance, Gerdes, too, discussed the funding determined by the census.

"Four hundred billion dollars in federal funds are given out based on census numbers," he said, noting that those funds pay for schools, roads and other infrastructure improvements. "It is very, very important to get the right numbers on this."

Although she did not speak during the press conference, Bemidji city employee Michelle Miller was recognized for her work in chairing in the local Complete Count Committee, a group composed of 12 individuals who meet to work on census initiatives.

"Let's make her efforts pay off by getting out there and getting counted," Lehmann said.

Bemidji area jobs

Bemidji boasts a U.S. Census Bureau regional office. Jerry Engelman of Detroit Lakes is the local census officer manager.

Engelman said he currently has about 60 employees, half of whom are stationed in Bemidji. The others are located in other areas throughout the 21-county region.

Engelman said he expects to have a total of about 1,000 employees throughout the census.

Statewide, Gerdes said, the census will employ 8,000 people.


According to Gerdes:

- The census form will be mailed out March 15.

- A second census form will be mailed in mid-April.

- Door-to-door census employees will begin working May 1. These employees will be sent to the residences of those who did not respond to the census forms.

Also, he noted, there will be an effort called Census on Campus that will be geared toward contacting college students.