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Native Americans historically shorted in Census

The U.S. Census doesn’t typically make a lot of headline news or cause almost daily controversy, but this time around is different.

Census 2020 – coming April 1 – has become a hot and contentious political and social issue of late.

Part of the reason for the fresh consternation is the Trump Administration’s move to include a citizenship question on the every-10-year survey form. The move was challenged by various groups and eventually taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision on the question’s inclusion was a complex one. But in a nutshell, a majority of justices ruled that it could not be included on the Census form.

By law, Census counts must include all residents. Trump’s critics – including many Democrats, of course – argue that inclusion of the citizenship question would intimidate non-citizens from participating, thus resulting in an inaccurate count. Those critics include the Census Bureau’s own experts as well.

Some estimates put the number of undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. as high as 11 million. In theory, Census 2020 would help to determine if that number is an accurate one – but the success of the Census depends on participation.

In addition, an inaccurate count would redistribute money and political power away from many cities led by Democrats, where immigrants tend to cluster.
The Trump Administration admits it is now out of time to challenge the Supreme Court’s decision for the purposes of Census 2020. The Census Bureau has already begun what is a long and expensive process of printing the Census questionnaire without the citizenship question.
However, Trump has said he will issue an executive order to use existing federal databases as a way to circumvent the court’s decision.

Why it matters

The U.S. Constitution requires that every person in the country be counted. The Census Bureau will send a letter or Census worker to every U.S. household. A fairly new development is that respondents will also have the option to complete it online or by phone.

The result of the count has wide-ranging implications, including representation in the U.S. House of Representatives (and thus the Electoral College) and the distribution of more than $900 billion in federal funding for infrastructure, housing, health care and education.

There are huge political considerations, too, as certain populations are more at risk of being undercounted. Those populations include minorities, those in poverty, people living in non-traditional homes or those who don’t speak English.

Native Americans – of which there are approximately 600,000 who live on reservations or semi-sovereign entities led by their own elected people – fall into at least one of those four categories.

In fact, 25% of Native Americans already live in areas described by Census officials as “hard to count,” according to the Native American Rights Fund.

A Census Bureau audit of the 2010 count showed that 1 in 7 Native Americans living on a reservation was missed. That adds up to about 82,000 people being overlooked and undercounted.

Some of the undercounting is due to a historical distrust Native Americans have of the U.S. government.

“An inaccurate count has far-reaching effects most-often carried by our most vulnerable citizens,” NARF said in a statement on its Census 2020 “Natives Count” webpage.

Seth Damon, spokesman for the Navajo Nation’s tribal council, was recently interviewed about the Census by the Los Angeles Times. The Navajo Nation encompasses the largest land area in the country by a tribe and has a population of more than 350,000.

“For the Navajo Nation and Indian Country, the Census determines whether your dirt roads get graveled or paved, or whether your people move from dirt floors to a solid foundation,” Damon said in the interview.

Many Florida counties, including some that encompass Seminole Reservations like Big Cypress and Brighton, have been tagged by Census officials as historically “hard to count.” The same is true for the Miccosukee Reservation west of Miami.

And while the Seminole Tribe of Florida may not fall into all the at-risk categories for being undercounted, it’s still an issue of importance in Indian Country as a whole.

Native American activists say one solution is to have locals do Census counting locally. In other words, hire Native Americans to count Native Americans.

Those who are interested can join the “Get Out the Count” group through NARF. The group spreads the word about how tribal communities can participate in the Census and get Census jobs.

More information is at census.narf.org.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a staff reporter for The Seminole Tribune. Prior to moving to Florida, he was a reporter and editor for print and digital publications in his home state of New Mexico. When Damon’s not working on a story, you’ll probably find him at a hot yoga class or splashing around on some South Florida beach. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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