NM 2020 census count higher than expected

Cristina Caltagirone, special projects coordinator with the Rio Arriba County Economic Development Department, stands next to a census sign in Española in September. The census count released Monday puts the state population at 2.1 million in 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Unlike its neighbors, New Mexico beat expectations in the 2020 census count.

Data released this week tallied the state's population at just over 2.1 million residents, exceeding the U.S. Census Bureau's own estimate for how many people lived in the state last year.

The official count, in fact, was 0.5% higher than the census estimate for 2020 – a difference of 11,405 people.

The higher-than-expected figure comes after a coalition of philanthropic and private groups joined public agencies throughout New Mexico to push for increased census participation.

Legislators and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham authorized $8 million in emergency spending last year to support census outreach.

“This initial data is a really good indication that the hard work that thousands of people did paid off,” said Allan Oliver, co-chair of NM Counts 2020 and executive director of the Thornburg Foundation.

Each of New Mexico's neighbors, by contrast, ended up with an official count below expectations.

Arizona, for example, came in 3.3% under its estimated population – a factor in the state failing to secure a 10th congressional seat, as had been expected. The count in Texas fell 0.5% below the census estimate.

Neither state made an extra investment in census outreach, said Robert Rhatigan, the state demographer and director of Geospatial and Population Studies at the University of New Mexico.

New Mexico's tally is “a strong indication that there was no net undercount,” Rhatigan said. “It's a very good thing.”

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., which works on redistricting for public agencies, said New Mexico's population growth of 2.8% over the last 10 years – while far below previous decades – actually exceeded the census projection of 2.3%.

“New Mexico ran an aggressive educational and outreach campaign to encourage New Mexicans to complete the census form,” he said.

State officials say New Mexico had a tremendous amount at stake – because of the state's heavy reliance on federal funding and its hard-to-count population.

Historically, New Mexico is among the most difficult states to count. People of color, children, Native Americans and rural residents tend to be undercounted in the census, demographers say.

The COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges, including the closure of tribal communities.

In a written statement, Lujan Grisham said tribal nations, nonprofit groups and state employees deserve credit for their work on the count.

“I am deeply grateful to every single New Mexican that took the time to make sure their community was not left uncounted and to the Legislature for unanimously supporting a measure to provide sufficient funding for New Mexico's complete count,” she said. “The results of this immense effort will ensure that New Mexico receives every federal dollar to which we are entitled – for health care, for food assistance, for roads in communities all across the state and so much more.”

Sen. William Burt, an Alamogordo Republican who served on the state's census committee, said New Mexico could have done better. He questioned whether the state spent effectively to ensure rural residents were counted.

“It was not as good as I wanted it to be,” Burt said of the population count. “I think it was better than the 2010 census, but not by a whole lot.”

Oliver, who served as co-chair of the philanthropic effort, said supporters examined polling and other data to help guide their outreach strategy.

“We focused really hard on the communities and groups that were the most hard to count,” he said.

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