Native Americans living on some reservations and other remote areas must wait until June to participate in the U.S. Census due to COVID-19 restrictions. It’s a delay that some fear could lead to a drastic undercount.
Those living on reservations or hard-to-count areas, many of whom don’t have traditional addresses or internet and are dependent on post office boxes, must wait for census workers to hand-deliver their materials to their door. Those areas, which the census categorizes as “update leave” responses, include the Spokane Indian Reservation and significant swaths of sparsely populated north-central Washington.
A little more than 95% of people living in the United States can fill out the census anytime between March 12 and the new extended deadline of Oct. 31. They are categorized as “self-response” by the bureau. They’re asked to fill out the census online after they have received a prompt with a code in the mail.
Many Native Americans living on reservations and those living in rural areas were initially scheduled to receive census materials between March 15 and April 17. Census workers are now scheduled to visit those areas between June 13 and July 9 instead.
Native Americans are one of several historically undercounted groups in the U.S. Some, such as Rachelle Bradley, the Spokane Tribe’s liaison to the U.S. Census Bureau, fear the delay could lead to a larger undercount than in the past. Bradley said she and others have spent months promoting the census and fear that three additional months of promoting it and urging people to wait for a packet to be delivered to their door could lead to apathy when census workers do arrive.
“I’m worried the longer we wait, the more people are going to put it in the back of their mind and it will be forgotten about,” she said. “I really don’t want that to happen.”
Bradley said she understands the importance of safety but wishes the census would consider mailing to post office boxes, or find other ways besides in-person delivery to involve those living on the reservation in the census as soon as possible.
If Native Americans are undercounted, or if they are counted but their race is misstated as biracial or another race and not Native American, that could mean less federal funding for tribes in the future, she said.
Samantha Biasca, engagement coordinator for the Na’ah Illahee Fund, a nonprofit that received a grant to encourage Native American participation in the census, said she was concerned rural areas and Native Americans living on reservations had received no official materials from the census, while many of the communities around them had already completed theirs.
“These hard-to-count areas just got even harder to count,” she said.
The Na’ah Illahee Fund is one of several groups that worked to inform and encourage hard-to-count groups to participate in the census. It has also had to cancel or significantly revise many of their efforts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biasca said the census likely would have run into issues with hard-to-count groups launching an online platform anyway, but said the COVID-19 pandemic likely made planning and carrying out the census much more difficult.
Jeanette Duran, media specialist for the Los Angeles region census office, said when census workers arrive to deliver materials, they will wear personal protective equipment and take other safety precautions.
She said census workers are taking as many precautions as they can, which includes delaying counting for many.
“The Census Bureau is adapting and delaying the operations to protect the health and safety of not just the staff, but the public,” she said.
Those who live in “update leave” areas, which includes some but not all reservations and some other rural areas, can use the code they receive to fill it out online, or fill out a paper form.
Not all reservations in the state of Washington are categorized as “update leave.” Some, such as the Yakama Nation Reservation, are categorized as self-response. People living on a reservation or who have not received a census yet can check the census’s website to find their community’s response rate and view a map of where different categories of response are.
The bureau has also had to significantly change the way it counts other groups, such as those who are incarcerated, homeless or living in a group, treatment or nursing facility.
Susan Balbas, executive director of the Na’ah Illahee Fund, said people who are homeless, incarcerated or otherwise vulnerable are often disproportionately Native American. Even if the number of people in those facilities is tallied correctly, many people who are Native American may not be marked the correct race or tribe, leading to a further undercount.
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