WASHINGTON ― The U.S. Census Bureau unexpectedly announced it will end 2020 census field operations early, a decision that will disproportionately hurt Native American tribes that are already historically undercounted, hard to reach and rely on accurate census data for lifesaving federal dollars.
The agency slipped the news into a press release last week: “We will end field data collection by Sept. 30, 2020. Self-response options will also close on that date to permit the commencement of data processing.”
That’s a month earlier than the Census Bureau ― and any organization focused on a strong census count ― planned for all year.
So what? It’s only a month, right? And why does the census matter anyway, beyond showing us how many people live here and where they live?
The census is so much more than a headcount. Census data is used to draw congressional districts, which means, for example, the more that minorities are counted in a given area, the more likely they will be kept together as a community and have a voice in Congress. If fewer minorities are counted in a given area, those communities are broken apart and lumped into other districts.
Census data is also used to decide how much federal money goes to every community. For each person who isn’t counted in the census, their community loses thousands of dollars every year for the next 10 years. That money would have otherwise been used for services like health care, education, infrastructure and housing assistance.
Native Americans were the most undercounted population in the country the last time the census was taken in 2010. This time, it’s going to be even worse because of the Census Bureau’s decision to close up shop early.
Why? People in remote areas, like many tribal communities, often rely on census takers coming to them in the final stage of data collection to do “nonresponse follow-ups.” They knock on the doors of people who haven’t responded to the census online or by mail, and they interview them. Many people on reservations don’t have internet access or reliable mail, so they get counted in person. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, reservations closed to the public for months. Now, with census field operations cut short, census takers simply won’t reach some of these communities at all.
“It ensures a historic, devastating undercount for Native Americans,” said Natalie Landreth, senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. “It ensures it. We’re not guessing. We’ve run all the numbers, and we know it.”
Tribes in remote areas rely entirely on federal dollars for health care, which the federal government is required to provide to millions of Native Americans under its treaty obligations. A census undercount means they will get a fraction of the federal money they are owed for the next 10 years, in an already chronically underfunded health care system overseen by the Indian Health Service, amid a pandemic that has ravaged tribal communities.
Native Americans have long been undercounted. The official estimated undercount in the 2010 census was 4.9%, though Landreth said it was likely closer to 7%. But this year’s pandemic and the Census Bureau’s shortened timeline mean tribes will take a bigger hit.
“It’s going to throw people who are already poor into more extreme poverty and diminish their political power so you never get anybody who represents your interests,” Landreth said. “Think of being powerless and poor. That’s what this does.”
The 2020 census response rate is trackable on the Census Bureau’s website. It currently shows a 63.6% response rate nationwide among people who responded online, by mail or by phone. If you toggle the data, it shows a 20.5% response rate among tribes.
“Think of being powerless and poor. That's what this does.”
In Alaska, which is home to 229 of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the country, the level of census data collection among tribes sounds abysmal. The state is so big and some tribes are so remote that census takers typically head into communities as early as January, much earlier than in the rest of the country. But bad storms early in the year delayed the process. That was followed by tribes’ shutting down for months because of the pandemic. Now that it’s August, a lot of locals aren’t home. They’ve left their villages for weeks of fishing and hunting as part of the seasonal subsistence cycle.
On top of that, the Census Bureau sowed confusion among Alaskan tribes about how census data would be collected this year, said Nicole Borromeo, executive vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.
“They had been trained to tell rural residents that they could only do it in person. Now they’re being told they can do it online or over the phone, when they had neither option before,” she said. “Then they said they’d be back in person. But instead, they’re just mailing them flyers and postcards. Then they said field operations are going to last through October. Now all of a sudden they’re ending at the end of September.”
It doesn’t help that there is already a massive amount of distrust of the federal government among tribes due to decades of oppression and broken promises.
“This could not be any worse for Alaska,” Borromeo added.
Three major tribal advocacy groups last week issued a rare joint statement sounding the alarm on the Census Bureau’s “unwarranted and irresponsible decision” to cut short the census count.
“Our tribal nations and tribal communities have been ravaged by COVID-19, and an extension of the census enumeration period was a humane lifeline during an unprecedented global health catastrophe that provided critically needed additional time to tribal nations to ensure that ... everyone in their communities are counted,” said the statement from the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Rights Fund and the National Urban Indian Family Coalition. “For millions of American Indians and Alaska Natives, whether they live on rural reservations or in America’s large cities, an inaccurate census count will decimate our ability to advocate for necessary services for our most vulnerable communities.”
The groups urged Congress to include language in the next COVID-19 relief bill to require the Census Bureau to stick to its original Oct. 31 deadline to end field operations.
There is some support for this on Capitol Hill. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) wrote to House and Senate leaders Tuesday urging them to extend the statutory deadlines to deliver census data to the president and states to the spring of 2021 from Dec. 31. That would extend the entire census process, not just field operations, which is what some census officials have said they need to do an accurate census count.
“In July, the associate director of the census, Albert Fontenot, said, ‘We are past the window of being able to get those counts’ by year’s end,” said the letter from Murkowski and Schatz, which was signed by a total of 48 senators. “Extending the deadlines for the delivery of these files in the next COVID-19 relief package will ensure that the Census Bureau has adequate time to complete a full, fair and accurate 2020 census.”
But congressional leaders are nowhere near a deal on the next COVID-19 relief bill. Congress doesn’t even return from a break until September. And in a depressing sign that the census itself has become a partisan issue, only two of the 48 senators who signed the Murkowski-Schatz letter are Republicans: Murkowksi and fellow Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
HuffPost could only find one other GOP senator, Steve Daines of Montana, who publicly urged the Census Bureau to extend its deadlines.
A spokesperson for Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who chairs the Committee on Indian Affairs, did not respond to a request for comment on whether he is concerned about census field operations ending early and hurting tribes.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, said there’s only one reason why the Census Bureau is closing up shop early.
“This is all politically motivated,” he said. “This is about Republicans trying to keep control over a changing demographic that they just can’t keep up with. ... Republicans understand if the census data comes back strong, when it comes to reelections, they’re going to have an even harder time holding power through a gerrymandered district.”
It makes no sense to stop counting people early, and all signs point to corruption within the Trump administration, Gallego added.
“They could ask for more money if they wanted,” he said. “They have given us no real reason for this. They’re just not going to count.”
A Census Bureau spokesperson responded to a HuffPost request for comment by emailing a link to the agency’s press release announcing its plans to end its field operations early. The spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up email asking if politics are driving the agency’s decision.
With Congress gone and hardly any Republicans making the issue a priority, there’s nothing stopping the Census Bureau from ending its count early. Unless something changes, tribal villages and reservations already wrestling with poverty and health disparities will have to brace for even fewer federal resources for another 10 years.
“This is harming their day-to-day ability to live for the next decade,” Landreth said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”