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Census starts in Cook County

The U.S. Census is in full swing in Cook County. It happens every 10 years and this time around, the goal is to count every one of 308 million Americans. The count could be critical to Minnesotans as failure to account for as few as 1,000 people could mean the loss of a seat in Congress for the first time in years.

The 435 seats in the U.S. House are assigned to states based on population. Each state gets one seat, and the remaining 51 through 435 are apportioned based on a complicated formula using decennial population counts. How many seats each state gets is based on its population relative to the other states.

State Demographer Tom Gillaspy did a preliminary analysis in December using July 2009 state population estimates and found that Minnesota could “just barely” lose its eighth seat, but he noted that the ranking for which state gets the last seat is so close that he's not confident of the result.

Apportionment by population, which has been done since the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868, has resulted in the three most populous states — California, Texas and New York — holding one-quarter of the U.S. House seats, and having more sway on committees. Losing a seat would therefore mean Minnesota would have less representation on legislative committees.

Minnesota has a track record of high participation in the census. During the 2000 census, Minnesota and Iowa were tied for top participation.

Even though the official purpose of the decennial census is to determine representation in Congress, there's more at stake. Cities, counties and school districts receive federal money based on census data. In turn, local governments use the money to do a variety of things, such as run programs for the poor, build roads and bridges, and provide grants for community development.

Each household is asked to fill out a 10-question form indicating the number of people who live there — including name, age, date of birth, gender, race and Hispanic origin — and the household's income level and whether the occupants rent or own.

Census critics complain that the census has strayed from its constitutional origins, giving the federal government too much personal information about recipients, beyond the simple head count. Ethnicity and relationships among the members of a household are among the data collected.

According to Gillaspy, “That individual level of data is never released.” It is used to track trends and to formulate population projections.

Once filled out, census forms should be returned in the prepaid envelope by April 1. After that, census workers will visit households that neglected to respond. Forms are available in six languages, large print and Braille, and assistance guides are available in 59 languages.