New Mexico state government is urging residents to make sure they are counted in the 2020 U.S. Census before the Sept. 30 deadline.
A month after the U.S. Census Bureau announced it was moving its deadline to end field data collection from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30, New Mexico’s governor and congressional delegation have signed a news release decrying the date change and encouraging any New Mexican who has not yet been counted to make an effort to do so as soon as possible. The data collected by the census is used to determine federal funding for infrastructure, education and more.
“We want an accurate count and an accurate reflection of the people in this area because what that means is we’re getting the amount of money that we should,” said Devin Neeley, spokesman for San Juan County, in an interview with The Durango Herald. “We’re not getting more, we’re not getting less, we’re not taking away from someone else.”
Besides the allocation of financial resources and representation in Congress, the census count has other impacts. For example, chain businesses often use census data to determine where to open new stores and restaurants based on population and access to target markets in a given region.
The census response can therefore influence day-to-day affairs in a number of ways. However, getting an accurate count for San Juan County has, in the past, proved complicated and has been made more difficult by the pandemic.
There are a few ways census data is taken. In most of the country, census materials are sent directly to registered street addresses. However, census materials are not sent to people whose primary method of receiving mail is a post office box or who live in places like the Navajo Nation that lack a central addressing system; therefore, a large portion of San Juan County does not receive census materials by mail. The census can also be completed via the internet or phone, but in San Juan County, only about 63% of the population has reliable access to broadband internet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Differences in access are made obvious by the census self-response rates. That data tracks what share of people in a given municipality have so far responded by internet, phone or mail. In Farmington, the self-response rate published as of Sept. 10 was 63.1%, with 50.1% via the internet. On the Navajo Nation, it was 19.3%, with 4.1% via the internet.
For those who cannot respond via mail, phone or internet, it is difficult to be counted unless contacted by a door-to-door census worker through processes called “update leave” and “nonresponse follow-up.” In 2020, those efforts were complicated.
“Census day was April 1,” Neeley said. “... At that point, we were in the midst of a pandemic and the federal government had shut down all of their on-the-ground operations. So, the ‘update leave’ didn’t even start until mid-July for our area.”
That, combined with the challenge of self-response because of lack of internet access and central addressing difficulties, has left much of San Juan County and the Navajo Nation with low response rates. San Juan County received a grant of more than $168,000 for education and outreach before the census, but as the deadline grows closer, responses are still lagging.
The census began accepting self-responses on schedule, March 12. However, because of the pandemic-caused delay in update leave and nonresponse follow-up operations, the timeline for collecting responses was extended from July 31 to Oct. 31 and then recently adjusted back to Sept. 30.
The expanded timeline was coupled with an increased nonresponse follow-up operation to attempt to make sure counting was completed accurately before the deadline. Despite this, concerns remain.
The recent deadline change and an extreme shortage of door-to-door staff members in the Census Bureau have led to fears that citizens will be missed in the count. That’s why New Mexico officials are urging people to make sure they’ve been counted.
Both San Juan County and the Navajo Nation are pushing residents to respond before the deadline. The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise recently announced several upcoming events to meet with census representatives, including one Saturday in Shiprock, New Mexico.
As the census deadline draws closer, officials want to make sure as many people as possible are represented in the data that will be used to determine federal funding and more for the next decade.
“The proper representation of people living here is going to be best,” Neeley said. “For all of us.”
John Purcell is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.