Navajo Nation Could Lose 'Tens Of Millions Of Dollars' If Census Deadline Shortened

Published: Thursday, September 3, 2020 - 12:27pm
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LAUREN GILGER: On the Navajo Nation, the self-response rate for the 2020 census is lagging — only about 18% of households on the Nation have filled out the census so far. Working against the Navajo is the vastness of the Nation's land, and many residents don't have standard mailing addresses. COVID-19 also made the process more challenging. In the past, census workers would knock on the doors of residents and explain what the census packet was all about. But this year, when the census arrived, some elders didn't know what to do with it. Compounding all of this is the fact that the federal government has shortened the timeline allowed for returning the census packet. And here to tell us more about all of this is Kate Groetzinger, she's a reporter with KUER in Utah. Good morning, Kate.

KATE GROETZINGER: Hi there.

GILGER: So I want to begin with what's going on now. So census takers have been rushing to try to collect this data despite the typical challenges of collecting this kind of data on the Navajo Nation. But adding to this now we have this pandemic. How is this process going? Eighteen percent doesn't sound good.

GROETZINGER: OK. So thank you for asking about the percentage. So the bad news is nobody could respond to the census on the Navajo Nation until around June because they didn't have the packets they needed with the code identifying their homes' location. The good news is that the nonresponse follow-up operation is going seemingly well so far. They have made it to 33% of the homes. So the total enumeration rate, the total number of households that have responded is actually around 50% now. And that's obviously good news. But the nonresponse follow-up was cut short, so people are worried about that.

GILGER: So let's talk about that, especially amidst this shortening of the timeline by the Census Bureau — now to September instead of, it would have been later on normally. And now the Navajo Nation, I understand, has joined this lawsuit against that move. How does this all play in? What are they hoping might change?

GROETZINGER: Right. So really what they're asking for is that the census stick... do earlier this spring, after it changed its timelines because of COVID. It said it would allow the nonresponse to follow-up operation where enumerator — where census workers go to people's houses and do the interview, the questionnaire with them. It said it would extend that October 31st. Now it's September 1st. And they're really just hoping to restore that deadline so that they do have time to make it to all of those households.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Kate, Lauren referred to the Navajo Nation joining the lawsuit. What has President Nez specifically said about this?

GROETZINGER: That's a great question. And he, he just made it really clear that — and this isn't from a quote in a press release sent out today — he said that these numbers are really important because the government, the Navajo Nation, receives a ton of federal funding that is based on its population, and that is stuff that is codified in treaties. So really, for the United States to uphold its treaty obligations to the Navajo Nation, they need to know how many people live there. And basically, he just said, you know, it's a bummer that once again, First Nations are fighting for something that the U.S. promised they would give them.

GILGER: So this would have pretty serious consequences if, in fact, they don't have the time to get to everybody they need to get to, to fill out the census there.

GROETZINGER: Yeah, absolutely. I talked to a pro bono attorney for the Native American Rights Fund [Sept. 2], and he told me that the funding for this, or some of the federal funding that's at stake is funding to build housing, funding to build power lines, funding to build water lines, new schools, and for federal programs like, like food stamps. He said altogether that the loss could be in the tens of millions of dollars over the next decade, which is how long these census numbers will be used.

GILGER: All right. That is Kate Groetzinger. She's been reporting on this for KUER in Utah. Kate, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

GROETZINGER: Yeah, thanks for having me.

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