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Census delay could help get better count of diverse communities

Holdup could provide more time for census field operations to resume on Native American reservations

Fewer than one in 10 households on many Native American reservations have responded to the census so far, in communities that may require congressional action to get counted at all this year.

Response rates on tribal reservations are a fraction of the national response rate, which neared 50 percent Thursday after a month of self-response. Tribal areas, rural and diverse communities frequently rely on the in-person counting efforts the Census Bureau has delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland, one of the first Native American women elected to the House and whose New Mexico district includes several pueblos, said many residents in rural parts of her district can’t fill out the census online because they lack internet access.

“I got my invitation in the mail and did it online. That’s not a possibility for some people. Especially in Indian Country, they rely on folks going door to door,” Haaland told CQ Roll Call, noting that an undercount could limit the federal funding tribes rely on.

“Already Indian tribes are underfunded drastically,” she said.

On Monday, the Census Bureau asked Congress for a 120-day extension of its statutory deadline to send final apportionment numbers to President Donald Trump and legislative map-making data to states. Under its proposed plan, the Census Bureau also would delay most on-the-ground operations until June and extend counting through October. The agency may need an act of Congress to move forward with its plans.

The Census Bureau thinks it will eventually meet its goal of a 60 percent self-response rate nationwide, said Al Fontenot, the agency’s director of decennial programs. Speaking on a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation webinar Thursday, Fontenot said the agency has sent census materials to grocery stores, gas stations and other businesses — it even got census flyers placed on pizza boxes — encouraging people to self-respond.

Fontenot noted that the response rate has lagged among communities of color nationwide. To counter that over the next few months, he said the Census Bureau will increase advertising spending in specialized media, including $46 million on outreach geared to African Americans.

In the same webinar, Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., pointed out that the self-response period doesn’t help rural areas that rely on outside support to get counted. People in the rural parts of his district had counted on being able to use public resources, like libraries with internet access, to respond, he said.

“People are not going to be able to access community resources, which makes the job of completing the census that much harder,” Horsford said.

Natalie Landreth, a senior staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, said the self-response rates through Thursday at many reservations stand at 5 percent or less. The response rate on the Navajo Nation reservation, the largest in the country, currently stands at less than 1 percent, according to Census Bureau data.

Landreth pointed out that like other rural areas, reservations often lack internet access and mailing addresses — many don’t even have residential addresses. In addition, many reservation residents, particularly older ones, speak native languages the Census Bureau has not supported through official translations. 

“They need someone to ask their questions to, someone who speaks their language, someone to get their form from,” Landreth said.

Census officials have said they will try to hire fluent staff as door-knockers in areas where they don’t have official translation support for native languages. Additionally, the agency will rely on its Tribal Partnership Program, where tribal leaders encourage census response.

“That is only going to improve the count,” Landreth said. “The problem we are seeing now is getting to the in-person follow-up.”

High stakes

Congress would have to change current law to allow for the operational delay, which Haaland, Horsford and other members of Congress have said they’re open to.

However, they want to hear more about how the administration plans to count groups like Native Americans. Horsford pointed out that the delay in delivering the data may shortchange public input on the map-making effort in states like Nevada.

“I’m very concerned that if we extend those dates out too far, we will further squelch the democratic process and affect public input on these issues,” he said.

Census data gets used in hundreds of different federal programs and plays a role in distributing $1.5 trillion of spending each year, according to research from George Washington University professor Andrew Reamer.

Past censuses have had significant undercounts of Native Americans, African Americans and other communities of color, according to Census Bureau research. The agency planned to counter that through a campaign of “trusted voices,” but that has been sidetracked by the pandemic.

Organizations like NARF and the National Congress of American Indians have asked Congress to back an extension of census operations to allow on-the-ground counting efforts to proceed. 

“For too long, Indian Country has been undercounted, underfunded, and underrepresented,” NCAI CEO Kevin Allis said in a statement Tuesday. “We hope that this extension will allow enough time for field operations to resume and safely provide the in-person enumeration that is essential to a full and accurate count of [American Indians and Alaska Natives] in this country.”

So far the Census Bureau has only asked for a deadline extension, and spokesman Michael Cook said the agency thinks its existing $2 billion contingency fund will be able to handle the extended operations.

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