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Counting on federal dollars

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As the deadline for the 2020 U.S. Census count looms in uncertainty, an undercount seems inevitable for some northern New Mexico communities.

An undercount for Than Povi Martinez would mean her pueblo, San Ildefonso, wouldn’t get all the resources it needs for the upcoming decade. The pueblo also wouldn’t be able to provide opportunities for the youth such as tutoring and after-school programs, as federal funding that goes to counties for the next 10 years is based on the census count.

Cristina Caltagirone, special projects coordinator with the Economic Development Department for Rio Arriba County, poses with a 2020 Census sign in Española on Thursday. By then, only 30.8% of the county’s census had been completed. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“The census would allow the tribe to have a bigger budget to fund projects that would improve the pueblo for our people, our safety and our health,” she said.

Over 300 federal programs rely on census data to distribute funds and New Mexico historically relies heavily on federal funding.

Martinez first became involved with the census by helping her mom fill out her questionnaire. Since she turned 18, Martinez said, she wanted to educate herself more on the importance of the census. When she did, she was struck how deep and long-lasting the census impact would have on her community.

“Personally for my tribe, we have a lot of health programs that get people active and clean eating,” she said, meaning to eat nutritional foods instead of junk food. “So we can get away from this stereotype of being diabetic and overweight and unhealthy. If we’re undercounted we would have less of a budget to support those programs.”

The deadline to complete the census is Sept. 30, but efforts are being made to push it back to the previously extended deadline of Oct. 31, a decision to be determined by the courts.

Reported inefficiencies

Gillian Joyce, principal of Rio Chiquito Research and Consulting which is contracting with Taos County for the census, said there have been problems coordinating the effort between federal and local officials.

“One of the biggest issues is that the Census Bureau just has not collaborated and communicated with our local level complete count committees to provide us with the data that would allow us to have a sense of what was going on,” Joyce said.

Some of the most difficult areas to count in the state are rural areas in northern New Mexico, including Rio Arriba, Mora and Harding counties, according to University of New Mexico Geospatial and Population Studies.

The intent of the U.S. Census Bureau is to visit every household up to six times, but in Taos County there are still households that haven’t been visited once, Joyce said. Part of the reason is the new Update Leave policy that was incorporated by the census this year.

The Update Leave policy requires all census packets to be sent to a physical address, not a post office box, which is something most people in rural counties use.

In Rio Arriba County, for instance, the majority of people get their mail at P.O. boxes, Lauren Reichelt, Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services director, said.

Even under the best of circumstances, having a census worker try to go to someone’s home or call someone via phone is grossly inefficient, Reichelt said. Census workers will instead leave the packets on people’s gates, where some people won’t find them.

“So you’re talking sometimes about ranches where people may not even see their gates for a long time. On top of all of that, the U.S. Census Bureau was giving us incorrect information,” she said. “They (the Census Bureau) were telling us to create fliers that said the wrong thing. They were instructing us to tell people not to fill out the census for a long time.”

If there is an undercount, the U.S. Census Bureau will have to impute the population numbers for communities, Joyce said. When communities are small, and highly diverse, it results in higher margins of error and lower data quality for communities going into the next decade.

“That’s a huge deal,” she said. “It’s a frightening and devastating deal. It already can be really crippling to do good policy analysis with the margins of error that we invariably end up with because of the diversity of our populations and the size of our smaller communities.”

For tribal communities, it’s not going to be an accurate count – that part is certain, says Ahtza Dawn Chavez, executive director of the NAVA Education Project, a nonprofit group that provides voter information to Native American communities.

One of the main reasons is that tribal communities are part of the digital divide. The Census Bureau has been pushing online responses as one of the main ways for counting people, Chavez said. But many tribal communities don’t even have stable cell phone service. An online option isn’t realistic for a lot of tribal communities and most households don’t have landline phones, she said.

Due to COVID-19, most tribal communities are still under lockdown. Mail has been slow, and in some cases nonexistent, she said. In addition, most tribal communities fall under the Update Leave process because they don’t have a city-style address. Most people didn’t get their questionnaire until June, July or even as late as August, Chavez said.

In the 2010 Census, Native Americans were undercounted by about 5% nationwide. For this year’s census, there’s a possible undercount of anywhere from 5% to 25% for tribal communities, Chavez said.

She said that could mean losing as much as $500 million in federal funding for tribal communities nationwide.

Facing challenges

Mercy Alarid, senior partnership specialist for the New Mexico U.S. Census Bureau, acknowledged there have been challenges in collecting census data this year. But as of last week 93% of New Mexicans had completed their forms.

Still, that’s not good enough.

“At the Census Bureau, our commitment to complete an accurate 2020 Census is absolute. We are doing everything that we can to maximize staff and production hours to conclude our data collection properly,” she said.

There was a strategy in place before the pandemic hit, Alarid said, and since then census officials have had to redirect things and incorporate contingency plans.

Alarid said census workers are on the ground making sure every person gets counted, including rural counties such as Taos County and Rio Arriba County. She said the census still has work to do and they haven’t stopped and said, “OK, 93% is good enough.”

This year has posed particular challenges, much of it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But some people are also reluctant to fill out a form because they are afraid of giving out information about themselves. She said that happens everywhere, not just New Mexico.

“Census Bureau employees are bound by Title 13 not to share the responses, not to disclose any information that we received from the public, and we’ve tried to make that known to everybody,” she said.

José Viramontes, spokesperson for ICount New Mexico, said that if the count isn’t brought up to as close to 100% as possible, the state would lose out on billions of dollars, he said. This is money that New Mexicans had been paying through their taxes and it would go to another state, he said. It’s the equivalent of someone being offered $10 every day for the next 10 years and saying, “No thank you,” he said.

Zeroing in

In order for county officials to determine anything about health – including death rates and disease prevalence – data needs to reflect instances per 100,000 of a population, Rio Arriba County’s Reichelt said, adding that an undercount would completely throw off the numbers, she said.

People in the county depend a lot of government health programs, she said, so if federal funding for these services falls short, it’s going to decimate the health care system in the county.

“If you deliberately mess up the count, it makes it impossible to tell if you have an epidemic going on and where it’s happening,” she said. “And not just epidemics, it just, it makes it impossible to determine where you have a lot of people with diabetes, where you have a lot of people with heart attacks, where you have substance abuse. So it makes it very difficult to use science to respond to any health issue.”

This is especially true during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Without accurate data, it’s hard to know where virus hot spots or outbreaks are. It would also make it difficult to accurately target a vaccine supply, she said.

In New Mexico, COVID-19 infections are particularly high in tribal communities. NAVA’s Chavez said there was already a lack of resources to combat the current pandemic, and now with an undercount, it puts communities at greater risk to lose funding and resources.

“There have been so many missteps made by the U.S. Census Bureau, that it’s almost laughable, except the consequences are so real,” she said.

Rio Arriba County had already lost out on federal grant money due to the past censuses, Cristina Caltagirone, special projects coordinator for the county said. In the past, the county had applied for a highway grant, but the grant was denied because of the 2010 Census undercount.

The denial was because the census data said they didn’t have enough moderate- to low-income households to qualify for the grant, “which is outrageous because everyone in the state knows how poor and poverty stricken Rio Arriba County is,” she said. “We’re one of the poorest counties in the state. Nevertheless, that data, because it was inaccurate … we don’t get access to those millions of dollars of community development grants.”

In an effort to boost census numbers, Caltagirone had been coordinating with others to host “Fiesta del Census” events. From these events, nearly 1,000 households were able to get counted. Despite the progress, the county still is looking at an undercount that would severely impact federal funding that flows to the county, she said.

“The consequences are going to be really dire for us,” Caltagirone said. “Even though we’ve had a good improvement over the last month and a half, we’re still not where we need to be.”

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