U.S. Census Bureau’s plan to end count early will harm Alaska Natives, AFN says

The Yukon River. (Photo by K. Hill/National Park Service)

The latest turn in the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the once-a-decade count of U.S. residents, the Census Bureau announced on Monday that it’s cutting this process short by a month.

The move raises concerns nationally that it would undercount people of color, immigrants, renters, rural residents, American Indians and Alaska Natives, undermining allocation of federal funding, services and representation in Congress. Today, the Alaska Federation of Natives pledged to do everything in its power to restore the October deadline.

“We are going to use every means at our disposal to ensure the Bureau restores the October deadline. The federal government owes Alaska Native and American Indian tribes a federal trust responsibility. Shortening the Census operations by a whole month, in the middle of a global pandemic and without any consultation, falls short of this responsibility,” said AFN President and CEO Julie Kitka in a prepared statement.

The federal government had extended the count to Oct. 31 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has reversed course just as the effort was turning to the more labor-intensive effort of reaching out to households that have not yet been counted.

That’s particularly important for all of Alaska, which has the lowest response rate in the country at a self-response rate of 49.7 percent of households. This figure doesn’t include rural responses, which AFN says would likely drag the number lower.

“Native peoples were undercounted by almost 5% in 2010, which diverted critical federal funding away from Alaska,” Kitka said.

Congress could intervene in the early cutoff by passing legislation to extend the deadline for the census numbers to be reported to the president, which is currently at the end of this year. Democrats have already introduced such a measure but Republicans have not (and they’ve indicated they’re fine with ending it short).

Alaska’s congressional delegation has not sounded off on the administration’s efforts to end the census early but on Sunday, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski weighed in on the importance of accurately counting Alaska Natives.

“Census data is incredibly significant to American Indians and Alaska Natives as it is used by Tribes and Tribal Organizations to make informed decisions about the future of their people. This information helps ensure fair allocations of funding for federal programs that are vital to Native communities, including housing, healthcare, and education. Unfortunately, due to their remote nature, language barriers, lack of access to telephones and internet, and often non-tradition mailing addresses, getting accurate Census data in rural Alaska and throughout Indian Country is no simple task,” Murkowski said in a prepared statement. “With 92,000 Alaska Natives living in ‘hard to count’ communities, I urge my colleagues to consider the negative impacts that an undercount can have on rural Alaska and Indian Country as we are preparing for the 2020 Census.”

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