By snowmobile and small plane, the 2020 census starts Tuesday in Alaska, facing the same language barriers and government trust issues that will make the count difficult on the U.S. mainland on top of actual physical obstacles like the rugged terrain where most of the state lies off the road system.
The geography of Toksook Bay, a fishing village on Alaska’s western coast that’s hosting the first count, shows the difficulty of counting the state’s residents. Many of the state’s villages, including Toksook Bay, can only be accessed by boat, plane or snowmobile. The effort starts in Alaska midwinter to count residents there before they disperse for seasonal work in the spring.
Local organizations like the Alaska Census Working Group have spent months on census preparations, including outreach and raising awareness among the Alaska Native community that makes up a significant portion of the state’s population. Gabe Layman, chief operating officer of the Cook Inlet Housing Authority and chairman of the working group, said the road system does not reach a significant portion of the state.
“In a state that is geographically so expansive, it is essentially impossible to get out to these remote communities and reach out to people,” Layman said. “People [live] in very small communities of just a couple hundred people and often know very little about the census.”
The counting effort in Alaska reflects some of the same issues that have plagued preparations in the mainland United States — delayed funding, distrust of government and language problems — as the agency prepares to count about 330 million American residents later this year.
At a press conference Friday in Anchorage, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham acknowledged the state presents “a host of challenges we are working on and prepared to meet.”
The bureau’s deputy for operations, Tim Olson, told reporters last week that the agency had met its hiring goals for the Alaska enumeration process. However, the agency lagged behind many of its hiring goals leading up to the census, and those who were hired had little time to get settled into their jobs.
“We want more [workers] but Alaska is looking really good compared to other parts of the nation,” Dillingham said. Overall, he said the agency has about 1.8 million applicants out of a goal of 2.6 million applications for its on-the-ground staff jobs.
Layman said the agency’s late hiring in the state made the job more difficult. Outreach staffers just can’t do everything they need to in the space of a few months, he said.
“They are doing amazing work, but it is just a shame the bureau didn’t have the resources to hire more people and get them sooner,” Layman said.
Bureau officials did not translate census documents into Yup’ik or other languages spoken by Alaska Natives, and the Alaska Public Interest Research Group worked on its own to translate the materials.
The information the Census Bureau distributed in Alaska had problems like mispronunciations in public service announcements, according to Kevin Allis, the president of the National Congress of American Indians. Allis raised concerns about the outreach to American Indians and Alaska Natives throughout the census process during a House Oversight Committee hearing earlier this month.
Allis pointed out the outreach campaign for Alaska Natives started about a month before the enumeration, far less than the five months the agency planned for the rest of the country. Additionally, the Census Bureau’s reliance on online hiring processes has hurt its ability to recruit in places like rural Alaska. Allis pointed out the last census missed almost 5 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives living on reservations. This year’s emphasis on online responses poses a risk for the count.
“The prospect of yet another undercount of American Indians and Alaska Natives is deeply disturbing,” Allis said, pointing out the communities have been among the hardest to count historically.