Census 2020: Montana tribes poised for 'historic undercount' following shortened deadline
Following the U.S. Census Bureau's announcement to shorten its response deadline by one month, experts and Native Americans in Montana fear tribes will see a "historic undercount," which could curtail funding for tribal programs for the next decade.
After temporarily halting field operations in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in April, the Census Bureau announced it would extend the deadline for counting people from July 31 to Oct. 31. However, in August the Bureau announced it would move its deadline back to Sept. 30.
The shortened deadline has drawn criticism from lawmakers statewide, with Great Falls Commissioner Owen Robinson calling the move "insane." In an Aug. 4 letter to the U.S. Commerce Secretary, Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney wrote the early deadline would have "devastating and lasting impacts in Montana."
Sen. Jon Tester decried the move, calling it "irresponsible" and "reckless."
"In Montana, rural counties, young folks and Native communities are severely undercounted, and this deliberate action is intended only to suppress their voices," he wrote in an email.
American Indians and Alaska Natives have been undercounted in the last three censuses, and in 2010, they had the highest undercount rate of any ethnic group, according to the National Indian Council on Aging. The 2010 census reported that Native Americans comprise 6.7% of Montana's population.
Many tribal members in Montana worry the shortened deadline will lead to further misrepresentation of their communities, which can have harmful, lasting effects, including insufficient federal funding for tribal programs and disaster relief.
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As of Monday, the self-response rate, which measures people who responded to the 2020 census online, by mail or by phone, in Montana was 57%, about 6% lower than the national average of 63%. Montana was ranked 46th for its self-response rate, compared to other states.
But because reservations often qualify as "hard-to-count areas" and because tribal members face additional barriers in reporting, tribes exhibit even lower self-response rates.
The self-response rate for the Flathead Indian Reservation on Monday was 43.5%, Fort Peck was 32.1%, Rocky Boy was 21.6%, the Blackfeet Reservation was 21.2%, Fort Belknap was 17.6%, the Crow Reservation was 11.1% and Northern Cheyenne was 10.5%.
Barriers to reporting
Many tribal members living in remote areas lack access to broadband or a computer, making it especially difficult to complete the census online.
According to the 2014-2018 American Community Survey, about 52% of households on the Blackfeet Reservation and trust land had a broadband subscription and 60% of households had a computer, and in Rocky Boy, 48% of households had broadband and 58% had a computer.
Tracie Moss, communications director of Western Native Voice, said the COVID-19 pandemic has further inhibited internet access.
"For a lot of people, the way to access internet was at work, at school or at the library, but now those places are shut down. Some people don't have phones or good cell service, so there's no way for them to call in and fill out the form," she said, adding that the organization has distributed yard signs, placed newspaper ads and collaborated with community leaders to reach people in remote areas.
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Michael Gray, census liaison to the Little Shell Tribe, said COVID-19 has diverted public attention from the census.
"At one point, I thought man, this is going to be an awesome census. People were really excited about it," he said, adding that members of the Little Shell Tribe felt a sense of pride in completing the census since gaining federal recognition status in December. "But then coronavirus hit, and everything shifted. The coronavirus noise has drowned out the census noise, especially on reservations, which have been hit hard."
While tribes can opt-in for "update leave," where census packets are dropped at households that may not normally receive mail at their physical addresses or have census workers visit people by going door-to-door, Gray said many tribal members fear census workers could bring COVID-19 to their vulnerable communities.
"The Bureau has required workers to wear Personal Protective Equipment and abide by local safety measures, but it's hard to change people's mindset," he said.
As tribes implemented precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many closed their borders and implemented roadside checkpoints, limiting outside entry, leaving a small, local census workforce.
Ta'jin Perez, program manager for Western Native Voice, said COVID-19 has prevented Western Native Voice's fieldwork operations.
"We know the No. 1 way to get people to actually do something is to have that personal touch, that one-on-one outreach within communities. That's just not feasible right now because of coronavirus. We are following tribes' stay-at-home orders, so we are not knocking on doors or employing other strategies and tactics that we know work," he said.
Perez said that in order for tribal nations to reach their 2010 census count, which was classified as an undercount, they would have to see a weekly 4% increase through Sept. 30. Instead, Perez said he is seeing a weekly gain of 1% or less.
"It's looking to be a historic undercount of tribes and tribal people not only in Montana but across the country. Statistically, we are rolling a boulder uphill. This new deadline is a bump in the road, causing us to lose momentum and valuable time," he said.
What's at stake?
If tribes are not counted accurately, Gray said critical tribal programs will suffer.
"When the federal government decides appropriations, they look at population counts to determine need," he said. "So, the less numbers you have, the less funding you get for critical programs that tribes rely on, like Head Start, health care and schooling."
Perez said when it comes to the census, every person matters.
"To put it in context, $20,000 comes to communities in Montana per person over the decennial, so that's $2,000 per person per year," he said. "That money will be lost in any community with an undercount. So if even one person is missed, you miss funding opportunities for advancements, maintenance and programs to encourage education, development or infrastructure. If those appropriations are based on an undercount, it will be devastating."
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Perez added that because the federal government has a trust responsibility with tribes, funding for programs, through the Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Education, Department of Interior and some tribal law enforcement agencies are determined by census count.
While many tribes submit their enrollment to the U.S. Department of Treasury, Perez said the federal government often uses census numbers to apportion federal funds. The CARES Act, for example, which provided funding for COVID-19 relief, was based on the 2010 census.
"It was based on an undercount, which led to millions of dollars that could have gone to tribes in Montana but didn't," he said. "It's really alarming that something as critically important as disaster relief is based on census data, and if you don't have an accurate count or enough time for an accurate count, communities will unduly suffer for the next 10 years."
To fill out the 2020 census, visit www.2020census.gov or call the Census Bureau customer service number at 1-800-923-8282.
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