Modified Timeline for Census Collection Increases Pressure on Tribal Response

Experts have blamed low Tribal response to the 2020 Census on the lack of Internet access in Indian Country and the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit some Tribal areas such as the Navajo Nation (pictured) particularly hard. (Navajo Nation Facebook)

The 2020 U.S. census results will help determine how billions of dollars in federal funding flow into states and communities nationwide. But Tribal response to the 2020 Census badly trails state and national rates, according to Bureau data, with the already-challenging task of counting in Tribal areas further complicated by COVID-19.

This is in part because Tribal governments have taken necessary measures to keep their communities safe during the pandemic, as Native communities have experienced some of the highest mortality rates in the nation from the virus. 

On August 3rd, the Census Bureau announced a newly accelerated timeline for 2020 census operations that threatens to result in another severe undercount of American Indians, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities. The Bureau and Commerce Department reneged on its previous deadline of October 31st for data collections — an announcement that came on April 13th. This month, the Census Bureau set a new deadline to cease all collection by September 30, 2020. 

U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has joined U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), along with 18 Senate Democrats, to respond to the modified timeline. 

The Senators are urging the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Census Bureau to honor their previously announced 2020 census completion date of October 31st to ensure an accurate count for Indian Country and the Native Hawaiian community.

“American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian leaders have spent months coordinating with the Census Bureau to prepare their communities for the 2020 count and to meet the Bureau’s October 31st deadline. Their herculean efforts to get out the count even during a pandemic should not be discounted or cut short,” the senators wrote. “Failure to get a complete and accurate count of these community populations will have long term and devastating impacts – from redistricting data, to federal funding, to congressional representation. A fair and accurate census is critical to Native communities’ continued and future prosperity.”

“We strongly urge you to honor the previously announced 2020 census completion date of October 31, 2020 and to continue operations under the modified timeline as detailed in the Bureau’s April 13th announcement,” the senators continued. “We look forward to working with you to uphold the federal government’s constitutional obligation to ensure a fair and accurate count for Indian Country and all Native populations within the United States.”

Udall and Cantwell are joined on the letter by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Angus King (I-Maine), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.).

Inaccurate census data reduces the voting power of Native residents, undermining Tribal citizens’ representation in Congress, state and county elections. The final census count also determines the allocation of over $900 billion in annual federal spending for the next decade, including $5.6 billion for Tribal programs. 

Native Americans make up roughly 2% of the U.S. population, and they are the group most likely to be miscounted in the census. Today, there are 326 reservations and 567 Tribes recognized by the federal government, each with distinctive health, housing, education and financial needs.

Many programs that impact the Native community are funded based in whole or in part on census-derived data, including, but not limited to: Head Start ($8.3 billion), Native American Employment and Training ($58.4 million), Indian Health Service ($8.4 billion), Medicaid ($312 billion), Urban Indian Health Program ($40.7 million), The Indian Housing Block Grant ($650 million), and the Indian Community Development Block Grants ($70 million). 

As Charlaine Tso, who represents District 9 on the Navajo Nation’s Tribal council, told the Guardian: “(The census) is a domino effect. It impacts education, roads and maintenance, elder care — funding for everything on our reservation.”