Mike Tyson famously said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." It sounded easy enough. Stand up and be counted! Go online or fill out the form! But even the best-laid plans can't account for a series of punches that have landed square on the jaw of a 2020 U.S. Census team that was poised and ready for action. First came COVID and then the unemployment crisis and then the lockdowns and, well, I don't have to remind you. Two words: murder hornets. (What happened to those guys?) But for many tribal and rural communities, it just wasn't as easy as filling out the form or hopping online. In a world before masks, the national census was gearing up for the rollout of a new strategy in early March. It was a multifaceted approach, designed to help communities count their own people. The philosophy was simple: The communities know themselves better than the federal government does, so why not allow them to manage counts? This was to include staffing, promotion and follow up. All the major players were aligned. Tribal governments, advocacy groups like the Native American Census Coalition, The Native American Voters Alliance (NAVA), the State Office of Indian Affairs and the Governor's Complete Count Commission were all on board, and hopes were high. This was, and is, no easy task. That's roughly 23 tribes and numerous tribal programs, county and state entities as well as nonprofits, consultants and even creatives. Outreach was finally gonna be tailored to the communities, far more than years past.
As records go, the census undercount has a 22 to 0 record against minorities and people living in rural communities since 1790. Every ten years the census pulls itself out of retirement and goes with the same old Rocky routine. Wakes up, slams a dozen raw eggs, runs through the streets waving at folks as they cheer and ends with a monumental stair climb to a finish. This year was back to basics; this was the census in the middle of nowhere training in a barn, lifting boulders and climbing mountains. The machine was gonna go down. It is estimated in the last census the undercount for tribal communities was around 5 percent. That may not seem like a huge number, but when you start to figure in statistics like an estimated 39 percent growth in population and compound those numbers with data like every person counted currently accounts for $5,000 in federal funding per year, it adds up. You times that over a lifetime, and it is potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding and support lost. This is money that goes to programs, schools, infrastructure and resources.
Not just tribal communities felt this hit. Hispanic populations in rural areas and even urban populations see drastic undercounts. New Mexico is hard to hit in general. As a whole we are last in the nationwide Total Response Rate. This elusiveness is the result of many factors. Internet access, rural addressing, lack of trust in the government, language barriers and even a lack of good old-fashion boots on the ground make counting N.M.. hard. Furthermore, not just rural populations are at stake. Consider that nearly 70 percent are Native people now reside in what is considered urban areas, and Albuquerque is No. 6 in the country in terms of Native population, with over 400 Tribes represented in the town. Unfortunately, the homeless rate in Albuquerque reflects this population shift, with Native people making up a large percentage of this demographic. All of these things together make accurate counting a tough task.
When COVID hit many of these rural communities, the focus changed swiftly and dramatically. The small population centers were now at high risk. When your entire tribal population is under a few thousand, 100-plus cases is an alarming rate. Communities locked down and imposed strict guidelines in order to gain control of the virus. Many of these places are still under strict lockdown to this very day. You have families that haven't seen each other in months. And for people that thrive on the continuation of our cultural practices, not being able to celebrate these cultural norms together is not just unfortunate; it hurts. Never in our lifetime or my grandparent's lifetime has anything shut down our communities in this way. It is scary and concerning, still. Thus, the reason in many cases that the census just kinda fell to the wayside. There were just many more important things to focus on. Oddly enough, all that support and help from the federal level that is so sorely needed in our rural communities right now is based on numbers like those obtained during the census. Such tragic irony.
Now, before we get all depressed. The census and the people involved to make this count happen, were not about to go out without a fight! They charged in with their head first and changed their game plan mid-fight. They were seeing triple and decided to punch the one in the middle. I have seen my fellow creatives make commercials via Zoom, record audio for ads in parking lots because they couldn't get into a community, in an effort to create messaging that was cultural-and language-specific. They mobilized, put out the call for local help, including hours of phone banking with N.M.’s. congressional caucus. Some communities even offered small incentives like gas cards for proof of doing your census. Jaime Gloshay, coordinator for the Albuquerque Urban Indian Census and member of the N.M. Native American Census Coalition, says they have had some substantial victories amid this crisis. "Our response rates in New Mexico are fairing pretty well compared to tribes throughout the U.S. Most of our tribes are currently above 30 percent, and we hope to see increases as field workers go out to make sure those who have not responded are responding." You can see this return data updated weekly on the U.S. Census page 2020census.gov. You can search by county, city, and tribal nation. It is actually kinda cool, if you're into that sort of stuff. Some major things that stood out to me when looking at the return numbers are as follows: 1). Holy crap, Los Alamos! An 80 percent return rate? 2). Some tribal communities are nearing 60 percent, including Kewa (Santo Domingo Pueblo) and Jemez Pueblo and Zia Pueblo. And 3). The only two states below N.M.'s numbers are Alaska and Puerto Rico. (Yes, I know it’s not a state, but they get counted like one.)
So all these teams are definitely putting up a good fight to get people counted. But every good fight has that final moment where the opposition has one last trick up its sleeve. No, not an asteroid hitting the Earth, but rather the premature ending of census data collection. Originally slated to close at the end of November, the feds have decided that stopping the count a full 30 days early is in the best interest of the country. This occurs just as the final push is getting going. In some cases communities have just begun to focus on the task again. Moreover, many communities have just recently received their information packets.
We’re in rounds 11 and 12, where champions are made. I didn't feel a few weeks ago like this was a mission-critical situation—until I saw the numbers for my home community of Acoma Pueblo and was floored. We, at the time, had only 18 percent reporting; but within two weeks, we have jumped to 25 percent, give or take. That goes to show that we can make these numbers go up with concerted efforts.
The census groups have done an amazing job to pivot during this time, but now it is really up to us as community people to urge our families and friends to just do the damn census already! It isn't about you and the time you have or do not have. It is about the resources in the future for your kids, for our aging parents and grandparents. If you need help in filling out the form, ask family, ask the 13 year old that is playing on your phone, ask any one of these organizations listed below for help. We have 30 days. Final round. The bell has rung; let's go out swinging!