Fawn Sharp and Cheryl Crazy Bull
The disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIANs) illustrates why Native people must be counted in the U.S. Census. An accurate Census count can make a world of difference when it comes to critical funding for AIAN people in the areas of healthcare, education, housing, roads, law enforcement, and more, while at the same time ensuring that our growing population has proportional Congressional representation.
The pandemic disrupted the Census Bureau’s operations in April. Tribal nations were hopeful when the current Administration asked Congress to extend deadlines for Census data collection, and the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would conclude field operations on October 31 rather than the original end date in late July.
However, the optimism slowly faded when the House agreed to the extension in the coronavirus relief legislation, but the Senate did not. Now, the Administration appears determined to cut short the enumeration door-knocking campaign, putting the count at even greater risk for all undercounted communities, since the purpose of these household visits are to capture responses from households that have not yet responded by mail, phone, or online.
Whatever the reason behind the current Administration’s sudden desire to speed up the count, Census Bureau officials stated in early July that the October extension date was needed for accurate numbers. If Congress is truly committed to a complete and accurate count, it must listen to the experts and pass legislation that allows for an extension of field operations.
Speeding up the Census count will devastate tribal communities. To date, almost 90 percent of tribal communities are below the national response rate, leaving millions of Native people currently uncounted in the 2020 Census. This means tribal communities nationwide would receive only 30 cents on the dollar of the federal funds that they deserve, funds that will make an enormous impact on our families and communities – right when they are needed most. By undercounting American Indians and Alaska Natives, we risk underfunding tribal communities for the next 10 years – as they struggle in the wake of a pandemic.
It’s no secret that harmful government policies have had lasting effects on our families and communities. AIAN people nationwide suffer from a poverty rate that is nearly double that of other groups – 25.8 percent compared to 14.1 percent of the overall population according to the U.S. Census. Poverty impacts all facets of life in tribal communities. The coronavirus has underscored the importance of federal funding for healthcare, technology infrastructure, education opportunities, food benefits, housing, job opportunities, roads, sanitation, and more.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed healthcare funding inequities for AIAN peoples. Lack of access to medical care and poor nutrition due to poverty have led to diabetes rates that are three times higher amongst AIAN people than other groups, according to the Indian Health Service.
Education is a way out of poverty, yet Native people 25 and older have earned a college degree at less than half of the rate of the overall population, at 14.5 percent compared to 31.5 percent, according to U.S. Census data.
COVID-19 has required students and workers to continue remotely, yet the digital divide has made this more difficult for Native people. In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated that 35% of people living on tribal lands lack broadband service – more than four times the national average.
While Congress must do its part, we too have the power now to change things. The answer is simple. Native people nationwide – no matter our age or location – must ensure that we count ourselves: either online, by phone, or by mail.
Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, said, “The Census is about more than being counted. It’s about our families. It’s about our communities. It’s about ensuring we have our fair share of the resources for roads, schools, and hospitals.”
We join Congresswoman Haaland in urging AIAN people nationwide to close the equity gap by participating in the 2020 Census.
When people are fully counted, they are both funded and represented. The Census determines legislative districts and the number of people who will have a seat in the House of Representatives – people like Congresswoman Deb Haaland – who serve as our voices in Washington. Representation is especially vital because without it we are taxed but not represented, which is devastating to democracy. And the invisibility of and toxic misconceptions about Native peoples creates serious biases in our government, institutions, and popular culture.
The situation is urgent. If we do not participate, there is no opportunity to correct the count. We must wait until the next Census.
There are three easy ways you can ensure funding and visibility for AIAN peoples through the U.S. Census. Designate one representative in your household to complete the Census in one of the following ways:
1. Mail the 2020 Census survey form you received in April;
3. Make a phone call. Customer service representatives are available every day from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Eastern Time in English (for all 50 states and Washington, D.C.): 844-330-2020 and Spanish (for 50 states and Washington, D.C.): 844-468-2020.
Once you complete your own 2020 Census survey, volunteer to help other Native people complete the Census, especially elders or those who need help in English. And finally, share the importance of getting counted on social media along with your reason for getting counted, such as school funding or better health care for your community.
We urge you to act now! Native people count! Stand up and be counted! Your families, friends, and communities are counting on you.
Fawn R. Sharp serves as the 23rd President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native tribal government organization in the country. For more information, please visit www.ncai.org.
Cheryl Crazy Bull is the President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, the nation’s largest charity supporting Native higher education for 31 years.