Falling through census cracks could hurt tribes

Native American communities hit hard by the pandemic faced a tough choice when census workers asked to enter their lands

A Blackfeet Nation sign, seen here in 2012,  welcomes visitors in northern Montana. (Braunger/ullstein bild via Getty Images file photo)
A Blackfeet Nation sign, seen here in 2012, welcomes visitors in northern Montana. (Braunger/ullstein bild via Getty Images file photo)
Posted December 7, 2020 at 1:05pm

When the Blackfeet reservation in northern Montana locked down in July because of the coronavirus pandemic — complete with curfews, quarantines and limits on outside visitors — it made the door-to-door counting process of this year’s census that much harder.

Alaska Native and Native American communities across the country faced a difficult decision this year: open their lands for the in-person census count and risk infection or keep closed and prepare for another undercount that could choke off federal funds vital to their communities.

Accurately counting native communities also could affect congressional apportionment for states like Montana, which is on the verge of receiving a second congressional seat.

The Blackfeet Nation, hit hard by the pandemic, allowed census takers on the reservation. But George Kipp, the director of the Blackfeet Manpower One-Stop Center, said it was a fraught decision.

“There are a lot of issues. There was a lot of testing going on, a lot of quarantine, a lot of fear,” Kipp said. His organization manages a number of social programs for the tribe, including census outreach.

Although the count wrapped up in October, advocates from Native American communities and others have pushed for Congress to extend the Census Bureau’s statutory deadlines. Right now, the agency plans to deliver apportionment data “as close as possible” to the Dec. 31 deadline and comply with the statutory deadline to deliver mapmaking data by the end of April.

Democrats in Congress and a handful of Republicans have pushed to extend those deadlines in order to give the agency more time for critical data work to find duplicate responses and people it missed initially.

The American Statistical Association, the Census Bureau’s own scientific advisory committee and others have urged Congress to give the agency more time. Agency officials themselves have acknowledged “anomalies” in the data they’ve rushed to produce, amid concerns the data crunch could shortchange tribal and other vulnerable communities again. The Census Bureau has identified problems with more than 900,000 records, according to leaked documents, which could include tribal members on reservations.

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The last census undercounted several minority groups — Alaska Natives and Native Americans worst of all, missing almost 5 percent of the more than 1 million living on reservations. Advocates say that has meant a decade of funding shortfalls to those communities for programs such as the more than $100 million in Native American housing funds through Housing and Urban Development and more than $40 million in programs from Health and Human Services annually.

Long-term problems

Kipp and the Blackfeet Nation used every tool at their disposal for this census: radio advertising, the tribal cable station, mass mailings to tribal members, even offering $20 gas cards to families who came to the manpower center to fill out their forms.

“We have a marquee board outside — we put it out there. Whatever we could do,” Kipp said.

However, disruptions from the coronavirus and longtime infrastructure issues such as lack of mailing addresses or broadband internet plagued efforts to encourage self-response to the census on tribal lands. The Census Bureau considers self-response the most accurate method of counting.

James Tucker, chair of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee for racial, ethnic and other populations, pointed out that self-response lagged behind the last decennial count in more than 100 of the nation’s tribal communities, including the largest, the Navajo Nation, which was a prominent COVID-19 hot spot earlier this year.

“All the indicia we have right now indicates we are going to have an undercount in Indian country, and it’s likely going to be higher [than]in 2010,” Tucker said.

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Census Bureau data showed the self-response rate on the Navajo reservation, which has more than 170,000 people stretched across northern Arizona and parts of Utah and New Mexico, declined about 7 percentage points to 22 percent. Data for other reservations shows a mixed bag; some increased their self-response rates by double digits, while others decreased drastically. The self-response rate at the Blackfeet Nation, 29 percent, was half the 2010 rate.

Part of that gap came from the emphasis on online response, according to Natalie Landreth, an attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. Many tribal areas are rural with little internet access or actual mailing addresses, and the Census Bureau’s first attempts to count them, having workers leave packets at people’s doors, was delayed by months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Even before the pandemic started we were concerned we were looking at a historic undercount. We knew we were in trouble from day one, and when the pandemic hit it really exacerbated the digital divide,” Landreth said.

When a household does not self-respond, the Census Bureau eventually sends someone to their door to try to count them in person. Tribes have sovereignty over their reservations, and some, such as the Seminole Tribe, forbid letting census workers on their land at all. The Blackfeet Nation allowed census counters who complied with guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

“We busted our butts to work in those time frames, but they said our reservation finally hit 100 percent completion. I just hope that’s accurate,” Kipp said.

Where census workers did not get the chance or the time to conduct in-person counts, Census Bureau officials said the agency used administrative records to complete the count. However, the agency considers those methods more likely to miss people, or count them without gleaning the demographic information needed for federal tribal programs or the Voting Rights Act.

To avoid a repeat of the undercount in 2010, Native American tribes and advocates got more involved this year. Nicole Borromeo, general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives, said local leaders got together to encourage responses, help translate census materials into native languages and more. She hoped it was enough.

“I want to be cautiously optimistic because I saw how strong our ground game was, but also we did have to deal with this huge monkey on our back, which was the pandemic,” Borromeo said.

Impacts of an undercount

Population projections before the census had Montana within a few thousand people of gaining a second congressional seat, so getting an accurate count of the Blackfeet and six other reservations in the state could put Montana over the line.

Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines told CQ Roll Call he’s “hopeful” the state will get its second seat after the reapportionment. He was one of a handful of Republicans in the Senate backing a census deadline extension, an effort that has so far languished in that chamber. The House has already passed one.

Getting the count right has implications beyond reapportionment for tribes; the federal government relies on census results to carry out its treaty obligations. That means funding for things like Native American housing grants through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Borromeo said an undercount could have a major impact on tribes.

“The most glaring implication is that the federal government’s trust responsibilities are not being fully carried out because the government does that by and large through tribal funding formula allocation to tribal programs,” Borromeo said.

Landreth said some federal agencies have the ability to alter their funding distribution based on unmet needs at the local level. That varies by program, though, and provides no guarantee that a community will get the resources it needs.

Undercounts could also keep Native American communities from hitting thresholds for mandatory language assistance under the Voting Rights Act, such as translating voting materials, further hurting their political participation, Landreth said.

The problems with an undercount could stick with these communities for a decade, Tucker said. He pointed out that funding formulas from the first round of pandemic relief used data derived from the 2010 census, making many tribal governments feel shorted.

Congress has the option to extend the Census Bureau’s deadlines, giving it more time to process census responses. However, it hasn’t taken that step, as the White House has kept control over the census process amid an effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment.

Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.