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Census self-response rate only 4.9% on Navajo Nation

Officials blame COVID-19, lack of internet
An enumerator conducts the 1990 census in New Mexico on horseback.

FARMINGTON – The Navajo Nation’s response rate to the 2020 census lags neighboring states, as the Nation works to overcome additional challenges related to limited internet access and the coronavirus pandemic.

The Nation has a self-response rate of 4.9% while the United States has a response rate of 61.9%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s tracking website. The self-response rate includes those who replied online, by mail or by phone.

Arbin Mitchell, tribal partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau, credited the low response rate to the rural location of many homes, lack of internet access on the Nation and the coronavirus pandemic.

Mitchell, who spoke during a virtual town hall hosted by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez’s office, said census workers have started leaving census packets at houses throughout the Nation. The packets had the added protection of being in a plastic bag to reduce concerns over spreading the coronavirus.

Mitchell also announced weekly census information sessions will be available throughout the Nation. For example, census workers will be at the Shiprock shopping center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Tuesday to answer questions and help people fill out their census questionnaire.

The state of New Mexico, with a response rate of 51.2%, lagged the national census response rate as of Monday. More than half the state’s response has come from questionnaires completed online at 39.3%. In 2010, the state saw a response rate of 60%.

San Juan County’s self-response rate was 41.6%, about 30% of which has been online.

Not all tribes have low response rates in the region. The Kewa and Cochiti Pueblos have seen an increase in response rates in recent weeks and were at 47.6% and 46.7%, respectively, according to the New Mexico Native Census Coalition.

In Colorado, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe was on track to surpass its 46.7% response rate. It was last reported a have a 42.2% response rate.

Tribal nations are historically designated as hard-to-count populations by the U.S. Census Bureau. The bureau estimated the Navajo Nation had a self-response rate of 29.4% in 2010. Across the U.S., the Census Bureau estimates Native Americans living on reservations were undercounted by 4.9% in the previous census count.

A low count can have substantial consequences. A study by the University of Arizona, University of California Los Angeles and Harvard University found the miscount left many tribes severely underfunded when the U.S. Department of the Treasury disbursed CARES Act funding.

The Census Bureau did not even start counting Native Americans living on tribal lands until 1900. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated a history of undercounting tribal communities.

The coronavirus pandemic also has delayed in-person visits from census workers dropping off questionnaires to rural household that may lack a traditional street address. This process was scheduled to begin March 15 but did not start until May 4. The second phase, known as Nonresponse Followup, sends census enumerators knocking on every household that has not completed a census, and is now slated to start Aug. 11 instead of May 13.

The Census Bureau is required to provide states with population counts by March 31, 2021.

During Tuesday afternoon’s town hall, Mitchell emphasized the importance of increasing the Navajo Nation census response and encouraged people to attend one of the information sessions happening throughout the Nation.


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