On April 1, 2020, census takers will begin going door to door asking New Mexicans to help the U.S. government fulfill its decennial constitutional duty of counting every single person in our state. For the first time, residents will also have the option to fill the questions out online or by phone.
The census is a big deal for New Mexico and for Albuquerque. The census determines our number of representatives to the U.S. Congress, is the basis for drawing congressional, state and local districts, helps business determine where to locate, informs planning decisions of federal, tribal, state and local governments, and is the key determinant for the distribution of billions of federal dollars to the state.
According to a George Washington University study, the top 54 federal programs distribute approximately $7.8 billion to New Mexico in the form of Medicaid, food stamps, highway planning and construction, Medicare and Title I Education funds, Head Start, housing vouchers and other programs. Should New Mexico have a 1 percent undercount, that would translate to an approximately $750 million loss over the next 10 years, which would mean either replacing that funding with precious state dollars or cutting services.
Moreover, New Mexico is considered the hardest state in the nation to count. New Mexico’s ethnic, cultural and lingual diversity is a major asset, but also makes it more difficult for an accurate count of these populations. These populations include young children under age 5, foreign-born residents, American Indians, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, transients, as well as those living in rural and remote, hard-to-reach areas of the state. New Mexico’s inadequate access to broadband will make the new online approach for filling out the census very challenging. The current federal administration’s decision to add a citizenship question will make an accurate count far more difficult as many members of the public do not accept that the government is legally required to keep their information private and do not have faith the current administration will abide by that legal requirement. That issue is now before the Supreme Court, which we hope will act quickly to remove the question.
In the meantime, a group of private and community foundations came together with the N.M. Legislature in 2017 to fund the initial work of the state demographer’s office. Combining forces, we assembled $362,500 to invest in verifying the census lists of addresses were accurate, especially in hard-to-count communities. As a result, the state demographer’s office identified close to 100,000 new or need-to-be updated addresses. On average, each address, if counted, translates to about 7,500 federal dollars to New Mexico per year. So, while challenges of an undercount are significant, there may be opportunity to increase federal funding into critical programs in the state.
Now is the time to act. The governor should immediately reorganize the statewide Complete Count Committee that brings together critical groups to spread the word of the importance of the census to their community. The state Legislature should appropriate significant funding for a robust “Get Out the Count” strategy that must begin as soon as possible. Other states are making significant investments to help avoid an undercount – California, $90.3 million; Maryland, $5 million; Illinois, $33 million pending; Washington, $4.8 million; and others are considering investments. Our New Mexico 2020 Census Funders group, with assistance from national funders, has assembled over $700,000 in commitments to advance an aligned strategy and support nonprofits reaching out to hard-to-count communities. With billions of dollars for critical federal programs for children, youth, economic development and housing on the line, New Mexico cannot afford to fail.