A troubled Census: Norm DeWeaver, James Tucker, and Liz Medicine Crow, talk about the challenges for Native people in the 2020 Census. (Photo by Mark Trahant)
American Indians and Alaska Natives are undercounted during the best of circumstances, like every time the U.S. conducts its once-a-decade count.
And this year? Trouble ahead.
This is Trahant Reports.
Yes, the 2020 Census is in trouble. It’s been in trouble for a while, said Norm DeWeaver, a consultant who has served on Census advisory boards, and has works with tribes to improve their count.
DeWeaver said Census troubles have been brewing for several years because Congress hasn’t wanted to spend enough money on the process. Congress has the idea that the Census should cost the same as it did a decade ago.
Native communities have a number of additional problems, ranging from the lack of rural addressing to a justified concern about answering questions from the government.
Yet the stakes are huge. One estimate says that every tribal citizen who is not counted costs their tribal government at least $3,000 in lost federal services.
Let’s put that in perspective. If a 10,000 member tribe is undercounted by 5 percent, that’s a loss of $1.5 million a year in federal funds, every year, for the next ten years. Many federal programs and block grants use Census numbers to determine the spending. The Census itself says the undercount of American Indians and Alaska Natives was 4.9 percent last time around. Most experts think the undercount was much higher.
The top 16 federal programs use Census data to determine funding models and block grants. James Tucker an attorney said: “If you are not counted, you do not exist for purposes of those federal grants and you are hurting your tribe. It’s as simple as that.”
In getting ready for 2020, there were supposed to be field tests at Standing Rock and at Colville, a way to test the methodology, but those were called off to save money. Yet it’s that practice, that improves the count.
Three U.S. Senators, Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota; said the Census was setting aside Native communities for “other priorities.” The three senators asked the bureau to come up with an action plan to be certain that there is an “accurate and cost effective process to count all American Indians and Alaska Natives.”
Another reason why the Census is so important is because it determines representation in the Congress and state legislatures. One Congressional district is about 700,000 people (except in states where there is one member for the entire state). Several states are hoping that population gains will mean an additional seat because of the 2020 count.
Elizabeth Medicine Crow of the First Alaskans Institute says Alaska Natives should have had at least two additional seats in the state legislature based on population.
So how do you fix the Census? The best answer would be more support from the Congress. But another answer is for tribes to do more of the work on their own — in a way bailing the federal government out.
I am Mark Trahant.