The coronavirus outbreak has derailed much of 2020, from concerts to weddings to sporting events. But the census is still on, and Native advocates are optimistic that this time the census could be a benefit to their communities.
The U.S. census happens every 10 years and is used to allocate billions of dollars of government resources as well as determine legislative districts. Native people have been consistently undercounted, which means they’ve lost out on needed funding and recognition, said Samantha Biasca of the Na’ah Illahee Fund.
“This undercount is another way that we continue to be invisible,” Biasca said.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Native people could self-enumerate rather than allowing census workers to guess their heritage. The majority of Native people live outside of reservations, meaning estimations without individuals’ input were dependent on the person taking down their information.
After the change, the Native population jumped, Biasca said.
“The numbers really exploded,” she said.
The 2020 census has been plagued by problems, largely stemming from the federal government. According to a report from the Urban Institute, funding for the 2020 census has been cut compared to previous cycles. The Trump administration floated a citizenship question — previously not included on the census — that many feared would impact the results by depressing the number of people who responded.
The citizenship question is not on the census. However, an effort called the “Trusted Messenger Program” did survive and may improve the count of Native people, said Susan Balbus of the Na’ah Illahee Fund. The Trusted Messenger Program engages people within communities to spread the word of the census. It’s particularly important in Native communities in which people may need the resources but likely distrust the federal government.
“We’re very attracted to the Trusted Messenger model,” Balbus said. “This is a way to really get a new set of community people involved.”
The Trusted Messenger model would have shown familiar and trusted people saying it was OK to fill out the census. The coronavirus has changed some of that delivery. The Washington state Legislature approved $15 million to fund efforts among community organizations to get people in traditionally under-counted groups to fill out the census, but plans for that outreach have changed because large events are no longer possible.
That was a curve ball, said Marc Baldwin, with Washington state’s Office of Financial Management.
“A lot of the plans that organizations had included significant mass meetings and public events that they can’t do. It’s an open question how soon they’ll be able to do that again,” Baldwin said.
The issue is compounded because many marginalized groups don’t have consistent internet access and 2020 is the first year that people are encouraged to fill out their census forms online. The coronavirus has closed places like libraries where people could access the internet and other services if they didn’t have it at home.
The timing was somewhat fortunate in that much of the work around training and messaging had already been done, Baldwin said, hopeful that work will result in high response rates without people going door to door, which could be a problem while the pandemic is still raging.
Of course, the coronavirus outbreak has also impacted census data collection.
The Census Bureau suspended field data collection in March with the intention to open offices again at the beginning of June. In-person activities that involve interaction with the public, such as enumeration, office work and processing, will stick to the most current guidance.
Census dates have also been extended. Online, phone and mailed response forms were expected between March 12 and July 31. Those dates have been extended another three months to Oct. 31.
Even with the coronavirus challenges, Washington is outperforming other states when it comes to census responses.
In general, Washington has had a relatively high response rate. According to the Census Bureau, 55.4 percent of Washingtonians have filled out the census compared to 49.8 percent of the nation. King County is even higher at 59.9 percent.
If you still need to fill out the census and have access to the internet, check your mail and see if your individual code has come in. Those that have not responded will receive another notice in April, according to the Census Bureau.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Apr. 22-28, 2020 issue.