Census Bureau head says N.D.’s growth presents challenges for 2020 count
BISMARCK — Rapid population growth fed by an influx of workers into North Dakota’s Oil Patch presents challenges as the U.S. Census Bureau gears up for the next headcount in 2020, bureau Director John Thompson said Tuesday during a visit to the nation’s fastest-growing state.
Thompson met with Gov. Jack Dalrymple and is scheduled to tour the Williston area on Wednesday to get a first-hand look at the country’s fastest-growing micro-area in Williston and county in Williams County.
“Any time you have a lot of population movement, it’s going to be more challenging than when you have a static population, but we’re up for those challenges,” Thompson said during a press conference at the Capitol. “One of the reasons we’re here is to learn about them.”
Census estimates released in December pegged North Dakota’s population at a record-high 723,393 people in 2013 — an increase of more than 50,000 since the 2010 headcount and about 22,000 over the 2012 estimate — with the nation’s fastest growth rate at 3.14 percent.
The growth comes after an 80-year trend of population decline, Dalrymple said.
“That trend has absolutely been reversed now,” he said.
Thompson — whose comments got off to a rocky start when he referred to Dalrymple as “the governor of the state of North Carolina,” prompting Dalrymple to chuckle and say, “Did you mean me?” — said this is his first opportunity to visit a state and some communities “to understand what’s happening to our population in planning for the 2020 census.”
New houses, roads and methods of receiving mail make it challenging for census workers to contact people, but technological advances will help them get a better handle on the population, Thompson said.
For the first time, the bureau will be able to connect in real time with census workers via the Internet and handheld devices, he said. Another reason for his trip is to conduct market research with mapping technology companies to explore private partnerships for 2020, he said, noting he had met with the Fargo-based firm HERE about its capabilities.
Census figures are important because they affect the level of federal resources available to the state, Dalrymple said. He said the Census Bureau is “doing a good job with a little help” from the state’s Census Advisory Committee.
“I think we’re pretty accurate,” said Thompson, who also planned to meet with Native American leaders during his visit.
Some western North Dakota leaders have criticized the bureau’s 2010 count and subsequent population estimates as being too low. Thompson said he wasn’t familiar with those concerns, but Dalrymple recognized that “it seems to people who are in the area that there are more new people than are being talked about or being acknowledged.
“But you do have this challenge of who is truly a resident,” Dalrymple said, adding some of the state’s newcomers work for weeks at a time in North Dakota but maintain a permanent residence in another state.
Thompson said such a dynamic and moving population carries risks of double-counting people, which is why the bureau is trying to understand those risks now in preparation for the 2020 headcount.
Counting a population such as Williston’s “is going to require a lot of work between now and then, a lot of work with our local partners understanding how best to do it,” he said.
While Williston is growing the fastest, Dalrymple said North Dakota’s population growth is spread throughout the state. Of the state’s 53 counties, all but 14 gained population from 2010 to 2013. Fargo and Bismarck ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, among the nation’s 10 fastest growing metropolitan areas in 2013, and three of the nation’s top five micro areas — those with populations from 10,000 to 49,999 — were in North Dakota, with Williston ranking first, Dickinson second and Minot fifth.
“I just really can’t tell you how much I enjoy statistics these days,” Dalrymple said.