Less than 300 miles from the Arctic Circle, Toksook Bay, Alaska, has about 600 people, a dozen or so streets and averages a high of 12 degrees in January, the month the 2020 census will begin there.
The responses among Alaska Natives in Toksook Bay and throughout the state could have a huge impact on the future of their community, not just in terms of political representation but whether they have a roof over their heads.
Though the census started out as a political tool to set representation in state capitols and Washington, it’s grown to influence more than $800 billion in federal government spending and business decisions nationwide. That’s led communities across the nation, from remote Alaska to inner cities in California to a growing town in Montana, to target extra effort to getting everyone counted.
In Alaska, census results drive tens of millions of dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to Native American communities to help build up housing that’s woefully lacking, according to Gabe Layman, the chief operating officer for the Cook Inlet Housing Authority.
“Native Alaskans, particularly living in remote Alaska, are often living in third world conditions that are unimaginable to most Americans,” Layman said.
About 14 percent of Alaska’s population, or more than 100,000 people, identify as at least partially Alaska Native, according to the Census Bureau’s 2010 estimate. The bureau’s own research, however, suggests that as much as 4 percent of the Alaska Native and Native American population nationwide was not counted, with huge impacts on the distribution of federal funds critical to these places, Layman said.
The communities in Alaska make up some of the hardest to count in the country, situated hundreds of miles from the road system in the state’s interior or western reaches.
Homes there are frequently overcrowded, vulnerable to black mold or drafty in places where winter temperatures reach 40 degrees below zero. Layman said residents live in “some of the most deplorable housing conditions not just in America but in the western world.”
According to research from George Washington University professor Andrew Reamer, Alaska received more than $3 billion in funding tied to census data in fiscal year 2016, including more than $60 million in housing block grants and other assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Those funds went to support or build more than 1,200 housing units that year in Alaska, according to a HUD report.
Native Alaskan housing makes up just one small facet of the more than $800 billion in annual federal funds allocated based on census data, according to Reamer. That varies from Medicare and Medicaid funding to Department of Health and Human Services Head Start funding to Department of Transportation federal transit capital grants.
While the distribution of that money is influenced by census results, it’s difficult to say a single person counted in the census is worth “X” amount of money to a city or state, Reamer said, as there’s a network of eligibility determinations and layers of government involved.
Data from the decennial census itself is rarely used to directly allocate funds, Reamer said, as it gets stale too quickly. Instead it’s used as a foundation for the data gathering that’s actually used to determine funding, like the bureau’s American Community Survey. Census officials send out that survey to thousands of households a year, then weight those responses as a representative sample of the American public.
Reamer pointed out that an undercount among a population like Native Americans or Native Alaskans has follow-on impacts for data for the rest of the decade: “You will think you are sampling a much smaller population than you are.”
Similarly, an undercount does not actually reduce federal spending, Reamer said, as those levels are set by Congress. Instead undercounts mean another community will get more resources instead of those who were missed.
When a state or city has an undercount though, that doesn’t mean that all of its federal funding will go down. Certain programs are aimed at individual populations, Reamer said, like Title I grants meant to support schools with a disproportionate number of low-income children.
“If Virginia misses a lot of 35-year-olds it is not going to impact the Title I grants because those are based on poor children,” Reamer said.
The census can also have major impacts for individual communities such as the city of Bozeman, Montana, which had a 2017 estimated population of about 43,000. Roughly 4 percent annual population growth has put the city on the verge of the 50,000 population threshold to become a Metropolitan Statistical Area, said Melody Mileur, the communications coordinator for the city.
That designation “is super critical to a rapidly growing community like Bozeman, because we are so close to the line and it will be another 10 years before we get another chance,” Mileur said.
Originally created by the Office of Management and Budget as a statistical tool, the MSA label has morphed into a designation that can determine or change eligibility for dozens of federal programs, according to a 2004 Government Accountability Office study.
It could give Bozeman access to HUD block grants and help it become eligible for Transportation Department programs to support transportation infrastructure. The DOT has more than $100 million in federal transit metropolitan training grants it distributes each year.
This year alone, Bozeman plans to spend more than a third of its $200 million budget on capital projects, and recently approved a budget with more than $30 million for new road, sewer and water infrastructure. Voters also approved $37 million in bonds for construction of a new public safety center last year.
About 90 miles from the border of Yellowstone National Park, the city has an international airport and a growing number of tech companies. Mileur pointed out that the state doesn’t have a sales tax and the city has few sources to tap beyond local taxpayers when building those improvements.
“We are desperately in need of more funding sources, our revenue sources in terms of funding infrastructure as we grow are fairly limited,” Mileur said.
The city formed a “complete count” census response committee last year, working with institutions like the Montana State University and other groups in surrounding Gallatin County. They’ve even selected a mascot for the local effort, Mileur said: a border collie that the committee will hold a naming contest for to raise awareness.
Housing shortage in the Golden State
On a larger scale, census data undergirds allocations for states to fight problems like homelessness. Lisa Hershey, executive director of Housing California, a Sacramento-based affordable housing advocacy organization, said the 2020 census will be key to the state getting the data needed to help build up its housing stock to meet a rapidly-growing demand.
Census data and annual homelessness counts, helps steer local efforts, Hershey said, toward transitional housing allocations. Additionally, it gives developers information about where and how much to build, she said.
California needs about 1.5 million more housing units to keep up with demand, Hershey said. Shortages have pushed thousands of the state’s residents into one of the hardest-to-count groups of all, the homeless.
Federal data shows the homeless population in California at about 130,000 in 2018, the most recent federal data, about 10 percent higher than it was five years previously. Hershey said the problem goes deeper than that, as more than 1 million of the state’s residents are “cost-burdened,” or spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent.
Many of those people also live in what Hershey called “unconventional” housing arrangements — several families to a single dwelling or multiple unofficial dwellings on a single plot — that makes them hard to count. She said people who live there may not respond to a government request for information for fear of losing their home.
Counting the state’s homeless population could have big implications for the state’s share of housing funds, Hershey said. In fiscal year 2016, Reamer found that California received more than $1.6 billion in funds from HUD in Section 8 public housing payments and other programs.
“Without a complete count California will lose billions of dollars and those billions are associated with housing development,” Hershey said.
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