Posted on June 20, 2019

The 2020 Census Is Coming. Will Native Americans Be Counted?

Kurtis Lee and Ben Welsh, Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2019


As the 2020 census nears, concern about an undercount of Native Americans is gaining traction here and across the country.

Approximately 600,000 Native Americans live on tribal reservations, semi-sovereign entities governed by elected indigenous leaders. Here on the Navajo Nation — the country’s largest reservation, spanning portions of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah — roughly 175,000 people live in a mostly rural high desert area bigger than West Virginia.

While other reservations are smaller, most are also remote. And all are home to a longstanding distrust of the U.S. government. Those factors help make Native American reservations among the most difficult places to canvass during the census, the once-per-decade federal effort to find and tally every resident of the U.S.

In the 2010 count, nearly 1 in 7 Native Americans living on a reservation was missed, according to an audit by the U.S. Census Bureau. That adds up to 82,000 people overlooked and uncounted — equal to skipping the entire city of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capital.

With seats in Congress and statehouses determined by population, political power is at stake. So is each reservation’s slice of more than $900 billion in annual federal spending doled out largely in accordance with census data.


Roughly 85% of the reservation’s roads are unpaved. If there hadn’t been an undercount in 2010, Damon said, the tribe likely would have received more money from the Federal Highway Administration Tribal Transportation Program.


The Census Bureau’s struggles in 2010 resulted in more than 80% of reservation lands being ranked among the country’s hardest-to-count areas, according to a Times analysis of estimates published by the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Is your area at risk of an undercount?

Sixty million Americans live in a neighborhood experts say will be hard to count in next year’s census. {snip}

Budget cuts have forced the bureau to reduce staff and field testing. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has deemed the agency at “high risk” of fraud and mismanagement.

Next year’s effort will also shift to having many households filling out their forms online. The move is expected to cut costs and streamline the process, but some experts worry it will make it more difficult to catalog communities that do not have widespread Internet access. On the Navajo Nation, like many reservations, the majority of households are without a web connection.

Those changes have prompted experts at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit group that studies government policy, to project another undercount of Native Americans in 2020.

To avoid that outcome federal officials say they are banking on improved outreach efforts, including a door-to-door campaign dropping off forms in vulnerable areas.


That lack of trust is a major issue for the bureau nationwide, amplified by the Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to next year’s census form. The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on whether the question can remain.

Some state governments are going further, allocating extra money to aid the count in a bid to avoid losing out on federal funding.

New Mexico’s budget coffers depend on nearly $7.8 billion a year from Washington for programs like Medicaid, food stamps and road repairs tied to the census. The New Mexico Legislature recently endowed a new state commission with $3.5 million to spend on ensuring an accurate count.


Back on the reservation, outreach efforts are already underway.