WASHINGTON — Native Americans on reservations face another decade of federal program underfunding because thousands weren’t counted in the 2020 census — a problem shared by minority communities across the country.
Tribal governments use these federal funds for basic needs on reservations, where poverty rates have historically been among the highest in the country. The federal government distributes $1.5 trillion a year based on census results, which this time missed 5% of Native Americans.
It will mean less money for food programs, building roads and keeping schools running, said Joshua Arce, president of Partnership with Native Americans, a nonprofit providing education, infrastructure and services. other grants to tribes across the country.
“The programs these communities are eligible for, they’re really just for survival,” Arce said.
The Navajo Nation, mostly in northeastern Arizona, received a $3.4 million grant in 2021 to build water infrastructure like septic tanks, for example. And the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in northwestern Nevada plans to use a $1 million housing grant this year to build housing for elderly tribe members, a community laundromat and handicap ramps. for seniors disabled by COVID-19.
Native Americans have always been the least counted demographic group. But the 2020 census also omitted a significant portion of other minority communities nationwide, according to a US Census Bureau report released last month.
While the total number came in at less than 0.25% of the country’s estimated 331 million people, the agency missed nearly 5% of the Hispanic population, the biggest miss for this group in decades, and about 3% of the black population, according to this report.
Congress seeks a solution
Minority community advocates and Democrats in Congress have been pushing for the agency to tackle undercounts before the data begins to trickle down to federal funding formulas.
Although most federal programs do not directly use decennial census data for funding decisions, they rely on dozens of different data sets that the Census Bureau or other agencies create using the count. decennial as a reference.
A letter signed by 45 House members and led by Reps. Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif., and Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, asked the agency to provide more information about the undercounts and how she intends to prevent them from impacting the distribution of federal funds.
“This misallocation would have a devastating impact on thousands of underserved communities across our country, preventing resources from going to the programs and areas that need them most,” the letter reads.
In a separate letter, Sen. Bob Menendez, DN.J., and 20 other Senate Democrats asked the agency “to consider ways to correct for undercounts in the census-derived annual population estimates of 2020”.
A Census Bureau spokesperson said the agency has received the letters and is working on a response.
The agency also plans to release more information on the undercounts next month. This includes state-by-state undercounts, which advocates say will be key to assessing census accuracy.
Find a solution
The Census Bureau is considering how to deal with undercounts in data used by federal agencies and currently has a few existing tools to deal with local undercounts.
But these tools require a concerted effort from local communities who may already be strapped for resources. Arce pointed out that the last decade the census missed a similar number of Native Americans, leaving them with fewer resources to build their communities in the meantime or prepare for major events like the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit Native American communities particularly hard, Arce said, and the rural nature of reservations has made it harder for the Census Bureau to count them in the middle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans are more than three times more likely to contract COVID-19 than white Americans, more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to die. According to the CDC, Native Americans had the highest death rate in the country, with more than 440 deaths per 100,000 people.
“Would it have been different if there had been additional funds available 10 years ago? Would there have been more people saved if there had been a greater push towards telemedicine?” says Arce. “I mean, these services, we’re talking about communities that lack basic needs, where they lack water, electricity, internet lines.”
Groups like the National Congress of American Indians have lobbied for the Census Bureau to engage with undercounted Native American communities.
“Every undervalued household and individual in our communities means a loss of funding and resources that we desperately need to address the significant disparities we face,” NCAI President Fawn Sharp said in a statement after the publication of the results of the undercount.
So far, the agency has held a tribal consultation on the undercount and will likely hear other concerns at an advisory committee meeting next month with representatives of minority groups across the country.
Census Bureau officials said the count faced “unprecedented” challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic and record wildfire and hurricane seasons that contributed to the misses.
Because many residents on the reservation do not have access to the Internet or mail service, census staff must hand-deliver forms — a process that has been delayed for months.
Several tribal governments have also taken the decision to close their reservations in a bid to quarantine against the virus, which has also led to count delays.
Supporters also blamed Trump administration decisions like ending the count early and a failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the form.
Census Bureau Director Robert Santos, who took over the agency in January, said in an interview that many members of minority communities do not trust the government, which makes them reluctant to participate in the census.
“Having said that, at the end of the day, we were in a pandemic. It was unprecedented,” Santos said.
Arce, however, said he felt it should be up to the federal government to fix the problems he created.
“Clearly it’s a flawed system,” Arce said.