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Stakes Are High For Montana, Tribes, In 2020 Census

Sign saying "Welcome to Blackfeet Indian Country."
Will Marlow (CC-BY-NC-2)
Sign saying "Welcome to Blackfeet Indian Country."

The U.S. Census Bureau is starting to hire workers to complete the 2020 enumeration that will determine  billions of dollars in funding to the state and whether Montana receives a second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

However, new data gathering methods may make it harder for some people living on Native American reservations and some rural areas to be counted.

"I'm convinced this one in 2020 is the most problematic census this country has faced in my lifetime," says William O'Hare.

O’Hare is a long time demographer who published research on census challenges facing rural America with the University of New Hampshire late last year.

“The upshot, I guess, is that in general rural areas are counted more accurately and have less problems than urban areas. But there are a number of hotspots in rural America where that is not true, where there is real difficulty in trying to get an accurate count of the population,.” O'Hare says.

Native American reservations are among those hard-to-count areas present in Montana. Native Americans were undercounted in the 2010 census by about 5 percent, according a post-count survey.

While phone and paper surveys will still be used, for the first time in 2020 the census is putting an emphasis on internet response. O’Hare says that could cause problems for rural areas, including Native American reservations. In part because the Census Bureau cancelled some tests of the new internet counting methodology, including one in rural West Virginia.

“Which would have given them a much better handle on how this internet and other new developments would work in a rural environment,” O'Hare says.

According to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission report, there is a notable gap in broadband access in rural and tribal areas. The report says nearly 31 percent of Americans in rural areas and over 35 percent of people on tribal lands lack access to broadband. That’s compared to a bit over 2 percent of Americans in urban areas.

In November, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau wrote that, "there are unique challenges associated with conducting the census as accurately as possible in American Indian and Alaska Native areas.”

But despite those challenges, Bureau leadership said it is working with tribes across the nation to plan for 2020, and it is confident that the collaborative work will capture the best possible information about American Indians.

The Bureau told Montana Public Radio that there is no expected impact on the count as a result of the emphasis on internet response, or the canceling of some testing of the new census methodology.

“Montana really does face some unique challenges, and that’s why we have to do a Montana specific message,” says Mary Craigle, the bureau chief for the research and information services bureau at the Montana Department of Commerce.

When Montana Governor Steve Bullock released his proposal for the next state budget in November it included $100,000 for marketing and promoting census efforts.

The budget line item notes that the 2020 census will be done by the U.S. Census Bureau with “fewer employees and $13 billion less in funding than 2010.”

This isn’t the first time Montana has spent state dollars on the federal count. The state Legislature and governor also agreed to pay for marketing work ahead of the last census.

However the money and political clout at stake is spurring Montana communities to start organizing earlier than before to ensure an accurate count.

Craigle says the state set up a network of “complete count committees” to work toward an accurate count of the people living in Montana.

"And all of those committees have folks on them that represent rural, as well as, then we have a specific tribal committee."

Leonard Smith, the executive director of the Native American Development Corporation, is a co-chair of the Montana Complete Count Committee. The Billings-based NADC works as a liaison for American Indian owned business in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.

He says trust in the federal census, on top of the lack of reliable broadband internet access, is something to overcome on reservations.

“I think it’s a historical issue. They’ve had a lot of poor relationships with outside interests. So I think that makes them more suspicious of anything outside the reservation.”

However Smith says the outreach effort has already started and he expects early efforts to educate about the census will pay off.

“I think we should have a much higher success rate for this 2020 census, because of that. I think they are actively participating and there’s a real buy-in to get that done. The education process is just consisting of going to the reservations themselves. Marketing to them on a consistent basis. Having telephone calls with them. Community meetings, those kinds of things. Council meetings gets it out in the tribal newspapers. And even going house to house and organizing meetings. ” 

"I’m super optimistic for Montana," says Mary Craigle with the Montana Department of Commerce.

"Montana is one of those states that have those personal relationships that we can talk to people and convince them that the census is completely secure, and so hopefully folks will say, 'okay, I get that this is just helping me identify so the dollars go to the right places,' because that’s really what this is about."

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Corin Cates-Carney is the Flathead Valley reporter for MTPR.