BISMARCK – Counting people for a census is like wringing a wet sponge, according to the North Dakota Census Office manager.
“We can get a lot of water out of the sponge, but the challenge is to get every last drop, every last individual counted,” Kevin Iverson said.
Counting all state residents, from students to snowbirds, directly feeds into the allocation of federal funding, Iverson said. One missed resident equates to $19,100 in decennial costs, according to a recent analysis.
Iverson’s office is gearing up in preparation of the 2020 U.S. Census. His team will soon meet with Gov. Doug Burgum’s office to lay out the next steps, which is expected to include the formation of a “complete count task force.”
On Wednesday, Aug. 29, Iverson and U.S. Census Bureau partnership specialist Alan Organ traveled to Minot and Grand Forks to discuss the 2020 process with city officials. Multiple state, church and business entities also met this week about the coming census and related concerns, such as response rates.
Iverson said the feds have already hired three partnership specialists for North Dakota, who await training. The U.S. Census Bureau will establish a local office in early 2019, he added.
Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, who was mayor of Watford City during the Bakken oil boom years of 2010 to 2016, emphasized the importance of obtaining an accurate count, especially in “hard-to-count” areas, such as Indian Country and the oilfield.
Including people who may not think they’re a resident but live in North Dakota, such as transient families, temporary workers and out-of-state students, is key.
“It’s where you’re living at that time,” Sanford said.
During the oil boom, the city of Watford City and engineering firms employed diverse tactics to estimate the population. The 2010 US Census counted some 1,700 people in the town.
Sanford said subsequent studies for infrastructure planning counted around 6,500 or 6,700 people during the boom, relying on households’ sewer usage, utility accounts, post office boxes—even grocery stores took note of the volume of food being sold.
He also said the expected task force would likely include subcommittees to emphasize areas like the Bakken, Indian Country and metros to eventually get all cities, counties and reservations onboard for the Local Update of Census Addresses program.
Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, said tribes and various political subdivisions are often undercounted. He said he’s considered strategies ranging from deploying tribal members to gather data, to referencing tribal enrollment data from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Counting people in Indian Country can be hard. Many residents are remote or live in multi-family units, Davis said. Many people, such as welfare recipients, may be wary of giving out information that they perceive could be “used against them,” he added.
As a Mandan city commissioner, Davis hammered on the importance of census accuracy when it comes to federal funding for everything from highways to health care.
“We need a very accurate count for obvious reasons,” he said.
North Dakota has about 755,000 residents.