2020 Census, Native Americans Undercounted, a Need for Real Numbers

The 2020 census undercounted minorities across the country once again, including Native Americans. Tribal citizens living on remote and geographically isolated reservations continued to have the highest net undercount rate among all U.S. racial and ethnic groups. This oversight is in line with a longstanding trend of undercounting minorities in the census, while overcounting people who identify as White.

The final census count determines crucial factors, such as seats in Congress, election maps for local and state representatives and the critical allocation of more than $900 billion in annual federal spending for the next decade, including $5.6 billion for tribal programs.

After the 2010 census and a 4.6% undercount of Native Americans, the tribes lost millions in annual dollars that could have shored up social programs and eased education barriers and the digital divide. Now, they are facing another 10 years of underpayments as they face the highest rate of poverty in the country.

This census undercount continues an unfortunate tradition of informing funding decisions based on false data that disadvantages Native American communities and jeopardizes:

  • Native social programs such as energy and food assistance
  • Native education
  • Reservation roads and maintenance
  • Care for Native Elders
  • Congressional representation

Communities are trying to rebuild after the COVID-19 pandemic and are also in need of support around the three infrastructure needs: water, electricity, and internet. Many reservations across the country still lack these basic needs, and false census numbers may obscure this urgent issue.

The pandemic surely contributed to the miscount, as people I talked with on reservations were nervous about the concept of an outsider in a mask asking them for personal information. Even under the best circumstances, people in rural and remote communities are the hardest to count. The timing of the census, with COVID-19 and the election, made this task even more difficult in 2020. Another challenge to census counting is the volume of multi-generational households on the reservations; some members of the family in the household may be tribal citizens while others may be non-Native or may identify as Native but not be eligible for tribal enrollment.

The census must be a true guide to our country, and every community deserves to be counted fully. PWNA stands with minority groups across the country to say the census results must be revised to include those missed in the 2020 count. We need remedies, real numbers to support real solutions to the issues facing Native families on the reservations and beyond. If nothing else, allocated funds should be incremented to offset the estimated undercount by the U.S. Census Bureau. Even 45 members of the House are calling on Census to address the undercount. There can be no action without true representation.

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