COVID-19 Threatens Accurate 2020 Census Count, Financial Implications for Indian Country

New Mexico alone stands to lose close to $600 million if everyone doesn’t answer the 2020 Census, Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, pointed out. (Courtesy

A number of factors hinder the Census Bureau from getting a full and accurate count of residents across Indian Country — a population historically undercounted and thus underfunded. The 2020 U.S. Census results will help determine how billions of dollars in federal funding flow into states and communities nationwide.

“It’s how we distribute our public funding,” Evan Curtis, the state planning coordinator with the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, told KUNC.

Tribal response to the 2020 Census badly trails state and national rates, according to Census Bureau data, with the already-challenging task of counting in Tribal areas further complicated by the arrival of COVID-19.

U.S. and Arizona response rates to the questionnaire that went out in mid-March were hovering around one-third of the expected total by the end of the month. But the highest response rate for an Arizona Tribe is just under 22 percent, and many more of the state’s Tribes are at or below a 1 percent response rate.

Experts have blamed the lack of Internet access in Indian Country and the arrival of the novel Coronavirus, which has hit some Tribal areas particularly hard. But they also said it’s not time to panic yet, as there are still months for Census takers to finish the job. “We are fairly early in the process, and because of coronavirus, a lot of the dates have gotten shifted around,” said University of Arizona geography Professor David Plane. 

The Census 2020 deadline to submit household data has been extended from July 31 to October 31 due to COVID-19. But even the deadline extension may not help Native Americans on reservations get their responses in. The 2020 Census is the first to be moved online, but Internet access on reservations is spotty. So many Tribal residents wait for Census takers to come to them, and even then, many don’t trust the federal workers who typically don’t speak their Native language.

This year, the Census is offering a variety of Tribal resources to increase Tribal response to the count. This added effort may be because, according to a 2012 press release from the Census, American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations were undercounted by 4.9 percent during the 2010 count. That’s more than twice the undercount rate estimated for the next group, African Americans (2.1 percent). While this was an improvement over the 1990 Census, when more than 12 percent of Alaska Natives and American Indians living on traditional lands went uncounted, improvements are needed, because the count is so pivotal for federal funding.

“So one of the things we’re very adamant about is the 2020 Census. My state of New Mexico stands to lose close to $600 million if everybody doesn’t answer that Census. Indian Country it’s difficult because there’s so many rural communities. People don’t have Internet service, they don’t have broadband, they don’t have computers. So I like for everyone to decide that this is an important effort for our entire country,” said Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna.

As mentioned, the 2020 Census is online for the first time, but for Tribal residents without broadband access, that isn’t helpful. What can be helpful is hand-delivered packets and in-person Census takers. The Census has a memorandum called “update leave,” which is designed for areas that don’t have mail delivered to physical locations.

According to The Albuquerque Journal, 17 percent of New Mexico residents are considered update leave. “Almost across the board, all Tribal communities fall within that category,” Jose Viramontes, spokesperson for iCount NM, told The Journal.

Response rates vary among Tribal Nations depending on access to the Internet and if the reservation has addresses. The Pueblos of Pojoaque and Nambé have response rates of 20 percent or more, but the Navajo Nation, which spans some 27,000 square miles across three states, has a response rate of just 0.5 percent.

New Mexico has been labeled the most undercounted state in the union and considered one of the hardest states to count in the 2020 U.S. Census report, states an Associated Press analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. A 1 percent undercount of the state’s population this decade would result in a $780 million loss of federal funds during a 10-year period. Native people in New Mexico make up about 11 percent of the state’s population.

The New Mexico Native Census Coalition, a collaboration of Tribal organizations, businesses, and nonprofits, are working toward an accurate 2020 Census Count. The All Pueblo Council of Governors, made up the state’s 19 Pueblos, asked the Native American Voters Alliance (NAVA) Education Project to create the Native Census coalition in preparation of the count as far less federal funding for outreach and education was available compared with 2010 allocations, despite the 2020 Census being available online for the first time in history. Many Tribes also lack access or adequate access to Internet services in New Mexico.

“There’s a lot of federal funding tied to census data,” Kyle Key, Chickasaw Nation executive officer of self-governance, said in a release. “In fact, it’s over $675 billion in roughly 325 federal programs — important ones too — Medicaid, Medicare Part B, federal direct student loans, federal Pell grants, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, to name a few.”

Key said it adds up to $9 billion every year for a 10-year period, or $1,800 per resident per year for the state of Oklahoma.

With many Tribal businesses and casinos shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those federal dollars are more important than ever.

Ahtza Chavez, executive director for the Native American Voters Alliance Education Project and member of the Kewa Pueblo, has spent months organizing 2020 Census efforts in Tribal communities. She told The Journal that coronavirus has thrown a wrench in her organization’s efforts. The organization has relied on phone banking, but even that has proven difficult.

“A lot of those phones are inoperable because people are having to choose, ‘Do I pay my rent, do I pay for food or do I keep my phone on?’” Chavez commented to The Journal.

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