Down for the count

Searchlight NM

The 2020 census is doing a number on rural America. In places like Lordsburg, New Mexico, that could spell doom. *Originally published by Searchlight New Mexico

Julia Sclafani
Searchlight NM

Tucked away in New Mexico’s bootheel, Lordsburg is the kind of town that hasn’t bustled in 50 years. It’s the birthplace of the state song “O Fair New Mexico” and the seat of Hidalgo County. It is also a potential ghost town, home to about 2,800 residents. Its population has been dwindling for decades.

Getting an accurate count in the 2020 U.S. Census will help keep the town alive, residents say. But the coronavirus pandemic — and what some call political maneuvering — have kneecapped census outreach efforts, threatening the future of Lordsburg and other small communities in New Mexico.

“I think Lordsburg is done,” said Clark Smith, the city’s former mayor, a title he held for 21 years. A retired mineworker whose roots go back four generations in Lordsburg, Smith is among many who worry that a substantial undercount is in the offing.

Similar fears have multiplied across the state amid startling news this month that the U.S. Census Bureau is ending its data collection efforts a month early.

“It’s an appalling dereliction of duty to cut short the time apportioned for the count,” Nora Sackett, spokesperson for New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said in an email. “Anything less than an accurate and fair census will leave too many New Mexicans without resources and programs to which they’re entitled. Every New Mexican deserves to be counted.”

Small cities like Lordsburg offer a window into what’s at stake if what’s deserved isn’t delivered.

The census, a constitutionally mandated headcount, determines crucial matters like apportionment — the number of representatives a state is allotted in Congress. More than $1.5 trillion in federal funds each year are distributed based on census data, a George Washington University study found.

That includes funds for food assistance, childcare, Medicaid, Head Start, hospitals, schools, economic development, housing, transportation, and hundreds of other programs that benefit children, families, businesses and communities.

The neediest communities are often the toughest to survey. Like Lordsburg, tucked in the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico’s southwest corner, they are remote places with high poverty rates and a pronounced lack of computers, broadband and reliable phone service. In Southern New Mexico, their residents are predominantly Hispanic or Latino; some are undocumented immigrants who fear they’ll be detained or deported if they fill out the census.

President Trump’s inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric has augmented those fears, as has his administration’s attempt to include a citizenship question in the census. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 struck down the government’s petition to add the question, confusion about the issue persists.

Now, concerns of an impending undercount have taken a new turn.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced last week that the count will end Sept. 30 — a full month earlier than expected. He said the bureau would “streamline” the process, explaining that the shortened timeline is necessary in order to deliver data to lawmakers by Dec. 31.

Democrats accused him and fellow Republicans of attempting to subvert the system. Streamlining, they said, means scaling back the critical work of knocking on doors in rural outposts such as Lordsburg, as well as on tribal lands and other rugged swaths throughout New Mexico and the nation.

“The Trump administration is trying to manipulate the 2020 Decennial Census for political gain,” U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) wrote in an Aug. 4 letter to Dillingham. Cutting the work short by a month — amid one of the worst pandemics in history — could cause a “massive undercount,” she said.

New Mexico, with its historically low response rate, is particularly vulnerable.

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Searchlight New Mexico is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that seeks to empower New Mexicans to demand honest and effective public policy.

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