Tribes Aim for Accurate Census Count to Ensure Share of Federal Spending

A school bus makes it’s way along a dirt road on the Navajo Nation. (Brian Leddy /Gallup Independent licensed via AP)

Tribes across the United States are vying for greater political representation and their share of federal funds, leveraging an effective tool: the U.S. census, which happens every 10 years. Native Americans have historically been undercounted—to the tune of one in seven Native Americans residing on Tribal lands not making the count in the last U.S. census. The 2020 U.S. census results will help determine how billions of dollars in federal funding flow into states and communities nationwide.

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.” 

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% 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% 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 U.S. 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. 

“So many of our programs from housing to Head Start to health to job training and funding are dependent on the Census so an accurate count is critical,” said incoming Native American Voters Alliance Executive Director Ahtza Dawn Chavez.

Like other Tribes, the Cherokee Nation is similarly urging its citizens to complete the upcoming 2020 Census to ensure their flow of federal funding for health, housing and other programs.

The Nation is spearheading the #CherokeeNationCounts campaign, “because if we aren’t all counted, we leave money on the table,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in the campaign news release. “The Cherokee Nation estimates for every one Cherokee Nation citizen who doesn’t get counted, it’s a loss of about $50,000 in federal funding over the course of a decade that helps our Tribal programs and services,” Hoskin added.

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