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Hmong population rises dramatically
By Art Hughes
Minnesota Public Radio
August 1, 2001
Part of MPR's online coverage of The Faces of Minnesota
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The latest census figures indicate the state's Hmong population grew almost 150 percent since the 1990 census - growing to nearly 42,000 residents. Some community leaders, though, think many Hmong people in Minnesota remain uncounted by the census.

A FACE OF MINNESOTA Vatou Her owns a State Farm Insurance agency on University Ave. in St. Paul. He estimates half his clients are Hmong. He is benefitting from a growing Hmong population, now estimated at 42,000 in Minnesota, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
(MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
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VATOU HER'S BUSINESS RELIES ON MINNESOTA'S THRIVING HMONG COMMUNITY. Her owns his own State Farm Insurance business on St. Paul's University Ave., where daily he bridges barriers of language and culture to bring a quinessentially American service to some of the state's newest immigrants.

"Insurance is new to the Hmong people. Back in Laos and Thailand, a lot of people don't drive so they don't know anything about insurance," says Her. "Even if they drive they don't have to buy insurance. But here, everybody drives and needs insurance. It's very very complicated to many people."

Her estimates Hmong clients make up almost half of his business. Much of the state's Hmong residents live close to Her's office door. The census shows more than half of the state's population 24,000 - live in St. Paul. Another 10,000 live in Minneapolis with much of the remainder scattered throughout the Twin Cities suburbs. The current population is close to two-and-a-half times the 17,000 Hmong residents the census counted 10 years ago.

Her says he sees three or four new Hmong people each day. They tell Her they move here from California or the southern part of the country to take advantage of Minnesota's strong economy.

"The first thing is the job opportunity, the second thing is education and the third is social service. Minnesota is one of the best states - we do good on those things. The people living here are good people who understand the different culture," says Her.

Many people in touch with the Hmong community feel the census count of 42,000 is much too low. Valeeng Cha, director of the Hmong National Organization in St. Paul, believes the Hmong community is closer to 80,000. He says despite efforts to educate Hmong residents about the census, many are suspicious of government forms and many more may have just missed it in the mail.

"There are layers of obstacles to people turning in their census form. We just didn't realize it was 30,000 to 40,000, unfortunately," he says.

Cha bases his estimate on previously released information from the state demographer's office, and from talking with others in the Hmong community. He says any undercount undermines the validity and strength of a community.

"If you talk to any statisticians any politicians, numbers matter in terms of political voice, in terms of policy, and in terms of access to resources. So I think the Hmong community lost a lot in this, according to the numbers that were reported by the census bureau," says Her.

Expectations for higher numbers can be traced to the state demographer's office, which estimated the Hmong population in Minnesota to be 60,000 in 1999. The number is derived from things like immigration information from the federal government, surveys of languages school kids speak at home, and school enrollment data.

Barbara Ronningen, a research analyst with the state demographers office, says the census numbers are probably more accurate, and any discrepancy comes from errors in basic assumptions.

"I think the estimates were based on the assumption that the families weren't as large as they were - that the size was going down," says Ronningen. "And the assumption that there were more older people who no longer had children in the schools was probably incorrect. We probably overestimated that part of the population."

Ronningen also says many of the state's newest residents are traditionally more mobile. She says the same people who came here from other states looking for a better life are the most likely to leave if Minnesota's quality of life falters.