Local officials fear census undercount - Albuquerque Journal

Local officials fear census undercount

N.M. 39 headed north in Harding County, which had one of the lowest self-response rates to the census in the state. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Del Endres drove for hours along a crumbling road in the massive Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Taos County. Her goal: to find one house to gather information for the 2020 Census.

Eventually, she happened upon a woman and her granddaughter, and asked where she could find the house. The woman laughed.

“That’s a hunter’s cabin,” the woman said. “No one lives out there.”

Endres’ heart sank as she turned around to make the long drive home. “It was just so inefficient,” she told the Journal.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s on-the-ground operations were finally completed on Oct. 15 after various changes in deadlines instituted by former President Donald Trump’s administration.

As with nearly every state, the bureau reported that 99.9% of New Mexicans were enumerated in the census, meaning nearly every household was reached in some manner.

However, former census workers and local officials told the Journal that doesn’t mean every person in the state was counted. In fact, given the various struggles workers and organizers faced, they said there’s a risk many New Mexicans were not counted at all.

Many pointed to the incredibly low self-response rates of some New Mexico counties, which are mostly rural.

For example, only 32% of residents of Rio Arriba County responded to the census themselves in 2020, compared to 42% in 2010; Taos County’s self-response rate decreased by 5%. On average, more urban counties saw their rates increase.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we were undercounted,” said Cristina Caltagirone, who led census efforts for Rio Arriba County. “It’s just a question of how greatly we were undercounted.”

The reasons supporting this fear are many – a lack of communication, a shortage of census workers, a failure to visit residences enough times and misplaced census packets, among others.

Local organizers had voiced these concerns publicly months before the deadline but, in many cases, the problems continued or worsened with time, they said.

Those concerns came to a head during the Nonresponse Followup (NRFU) process, when census workers traditionally go to residents who haven’t responded to get their information.

A collection of census maps of New Mexico counties at UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. (Kristopher Parra/Albuquerque Journal )

Rural areas often rely heavily on NRFU, because they sometimes lack stable internet connection. The lack of traditional street addresses can also be confusing, as officials in these areas reported many residents received either no packet or, sometimes, as many as five.

“It was a (expletive)show, frankly,” said Gillian Joyce, who contracted with Taos County to promote the census. “My brain just wants to block this stuff out. It was so stressful.”

Organizers report the dissemination of information was often confusing and contradictory, with the federal government repeatedly changing deadlines for the census and instructions for how people should respond.

In many cases, enumerators went to the residences where people had already filled out the census. Endres said she would go to houses where people had already filled the form out three times – sometimes, they would refuse to do it again.

As a result, New Mexico stood far behind other states in total enumeration. One month before the Oct. 15 deadline, as many states had nearly completed their census efforts, New Mexico’s enumeration was only 87% finished.

Eventually, the bureau flew in hundreds of enumerators from Texas to complete the count in places across New Mexico, workers and organizers said. Many suspected it was due to the lack of local workers hired by the census.

“That’s extremely problematic, because nobody knows the community like somebody from that community,” State Demographer Robert Rhatigan said.

Caltagirone said one enumerator from Texas even called her after she had trouble finding a house in rural Rio Arriba County. Plenty of locals applied, she said, but few were hired.

Nichole Rogers, an enumerator in Albuquerque, said those from Texas were often sent to work in the field ahead of local New Mexicans. Even at the bureau’s busiest time, there were days she received no addresses to enumerate.

All this, some workers said, was part of an effort to rapidly increase the census response rate after the federal government shortened the deadline. Rhatigan noted the NRFU completion rate increased rapidly statewide within the last couple weeks of the census, which is concerning.

“Because New Mexico was well behind most states, it rose very rapidly in those last two weeks,” he said. “That really leaves me wanting to see the NRFU data.”

He said he worried the bureau relied too heavily on proxy responses, in which census workers interview neighbors or landlords about a resident they can’t get hold of. The City University of New York noted that 22% of respondents to the 2010 Census were by proxy, a quarter of which didn’t gather enough useful information.

Rogers said she did not find the proxy responses useful, especially for information regarding race and ethnicity.

“I thought that was extremely problematic, because I don’t want my neighbor deciding who I am,” she said, adding many neighbors declined to answer that question, anyway.

She said her supervisors told her to “not worry” about gathering racial information and focus on getting the number of people in a household.

When the Journal requested an interview with the bureau, a representative provided a written statement explaining that, while there were struggles related to COVID-19, they were pleased with the outcome.

“We felt our operations ran very well, and are proud of the work our staff and the state of New Mexico did to make this historic 2020 Census go off without a hitch,” the statement read.

But exactly how successful the census was will remain unknown until the bureau releases complete state population data. The bureau recently announced that’s now expected to happen by April 30, four months after the original deadline.

Even when the data is released, there has been some concern over just how accurate it will be. Rogers said, based on her experience in the bureau, she doubts it will be.

“I think we did the best we could, but with a short amount of time … it was an impossible task,” she said.

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