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Census accuracy crucial to NM’s federal funding

An envelope containing a census letter mailed to selected U.S. residents in March 2018 as part of the nation’s only test run of the 2020 Census. (Michelle R. Smith/Associated Press)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico, which receives nearly $8 billion in federal dollars each year, stands to lose $750 million over 10 years for every 1 percent undercount in the upcoming 2020 Census.

Because federal money for various programs is often predicated on the state’s population, counting every resident of New Mexico is critically important, said Allan Oliver, executive director of the Thornburg Foundation, which is part of a group that has organized to make sure New Mexico’s census count is as accurate as possible.

Starting next April 1, census takers will begin gathering information for the 2020 Census. New Mexico, however, is one of the most difficult states in which to do that, because it is “large, rural, sparsely populated, as well as ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse,” Oliver said.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Thornburg Foundation makes grants in New Mexico to fund projects in the areas of early childhood education, food and agriculture, and good government.

The family foundation is also part of the NM 2020 Census Funders, a group of grant-making organizations looking to fund grass-roots groups that can identify and educate communities and people in New Mexico that are likely to be overlooked by the census or who may be reluctant to participate in the census.

The U.S. Constitution mandates that a census take place every 10 years. The census data determines the number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives, but it also helps in the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funds to communities.

According to the University of New Mexico’s Geospatial and Population Studies, New Mexico was undercounted by nearly 2 percent in the 2000 Census and had the second lowest response rate in the country during the 2010 Census.

New Mexico currently receives approximately $7.8 billion annually from 54 federal programs, including Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, highway funding, Head Start, Title I education and housing vouchers, according to a study by George Washington University.

The 2020 Census will be the first time that the U.S. Census Bureau is allowing residents to fill out the census form online or by phone. That could be a challenge in rural New Mexico communities, where there is poor or no internet access, Oliver said.

Also for the first time, the census form includes a citizenship question – which critics say could discourage a large number of New Mexico residents from participating for fear of calling attention to their immigration status.

Oliver pointed to a survey conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School that preceded the 2010 Census and included a citizenship question. The survey results made clear that a citizenship question “significantly increases the percent of questions skipped, with particularly strong effects among Hispanics, and makes respondents less likely to report having members of their household who are of Hispanic ethnicity.”

Based on that survey and other data, Harvard researchers recently said a citizenship question on the 2020 Census would result in a nationwide undercount of up to 4.6 million Hispanics, and that number was likely an underestimate.

Inclusion of the citizenship question was requested in late 2017 by the U.S. Justice Department and subsequently accepted by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. A number of jurisdictions filed suit, saying the question would have a disproportionate effect on Hispanic populations. A federal district judge in Maryland on Friday blocked the proposed question, joining federal judges in New York and California who did so previously and ordered the Trump administration to remove it.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up the matter April 23.

Dolores Roybal, executive director of Con Alma Health Foundation, a member of the NM 2020 Census Funders, said, “We want to make sure everyone is recognized and we have a true and accurate picture of the people of New Mexico.”

Con Alma is a grant-making organization that focuses on programs, policies and projects that help improve the health status and health access needs of the underserved and demographically diverse communities of New Mexico.

A complete and accurate census count is also important, Roybal said, because of the correlation between the state’s population and the “much needed resources” New Mexico gets from the funding of federal programs.

“There’s a disconnect in that the populations that are generally undercounted are the ones in most need of those resources,” she said.

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