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Rural Arizona, Tribal Nations Lag Behind Census Count

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Today a judge ruled the 2020 Census count will continue through October 31. Census takers are still working to get an accurate count in remote areas of Northern Arizona including tribal nations. Less than a quarter of households on the Navajo and Hopi nations have responded to the questionnaire by phone, mail or online, leaving Census takers to make up the difference by going door to door. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Jessica Imotichey, a coordinator with the U.S. Census Bureau.

This year of course the pandemic has made everything more complicated, can you talk about how that’s affected the Census count?

It has. It’s hard to do a national count when you’re also in a global pandemic… Our Census takers are now in communities, and they’re knocking on doors, but they’re doing it safety. They’re wearing masks, they’re wearing gloves, they carry hand sanitizer, they maintain that six foot social distance… But the important thing is that there is still time to respond, and that time is now.

Tell me what the response rate to the Census looks like here in northern Arizona.

For the city of Flagstaff you’re right around 59 percent. The total for Arizona is about 63.6 percent in terms of self-response… In terms of the total enumeration rate… you are at 97.5 percent. Total enumeration is essentially the self-response rate plus what we have going on right now, which is our non-response follow up operation. That’s where we are actually in communities knocking on doors and enumerating individuals in person.

OK, so if someone doesn’t respond by phone or mail you send someone out to knock on the door.

Correct.

How does it look more broadly in some of our rural areas, we have the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Nation. What does it look like out in those counties?

We do have some work to do in those areas, definitely. Most of those areas, when we look at rural America and particularly tribal reservation areas, we got a little bit of a late start. A couple of things played into that, primarily the COVID pandemic. Many of those area, our rural areas and tribal reservation areas, are under what we call an “update-leave operation.” That’s where we physically update an address in person, and we leave a Census packet at the door. We had to start that operation later due to some restrictions and some holds related to the pandemic, and then also many of our tribal reservations actually closed access to their lands for a while. There were some delays getting started. That’s why you see their self-response numbers not quite as high as the other national numbers.

Can you talk a little bit more about some of the challenges with getting an accurate Census count specifically on Native American reservations?

For example, I would say historically tribes have been a little bit hesitant to trust the federal government, so there are still trust issues related to that. Sometimes data has not always been used in their favor… But we have what we call a tribal partnership program, in which we hire tribal partnership specialists to work directly with tribal governments, form those relationships and partnerships. It’s really aimed at helping improve that trust process… and so that’s been really helpful.

Tell me why it’s important everyone is counted in the Census.

The census is rooted in the Constitution. Its primary purpose is for the apportionment of the House of Representatives. So it really is about having that voice, your voice in congress.… But we want to make sure that folks also understand it’s about funding. There are hundreds of billions of dollars in federal programs that go out each year based on Census methodology and its funding. So when you’re looking at access to health care, education programs, road construction, housing, a lot of those programs utilize Census data. So that becomes really important.

Jessica, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Absolutely, thank you.

You can complete the census or get more information at: https://azcensus2020.gov/

Update: an earlier version of this story said the Census would end Monday, Oct. 5. A judge extended the deadline to October 31.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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