FARMINGTON – In the face of historically low census response rates, San Juan County received a grant from the state for public education, outreach and communications to help ensure vulnerable populations will be counted and to increase the 2020 census response rates, county officials said.
New Mexico has routinely struggled with an inaccurate census count. According to an Associated Press report last year, about 41% of New Mexicans live in an area with a low census response rate, leading these “hard-to-count” areas to be underrepresented. The 2010 census undercounted San Juan County by 2.5% and New Mexico by 1.94%, said Devin Neely, spokesman for San Juan County. Neely is also a member of the San Juan County Complete Count Committee, an initiative of local government, education and community organizations working to ensure an accurate census count.
Undercounting, Neely said, can put the county in jeopardy of losing funding for key services like food assistance, health care, community development and public education. “If you don’t fill out the census, that’s $37,000 that goes somewhere else,” Neely said, based on his estimates of the federal funding the county could lose out on per person over the 10-year period. The county received more than $168,000 to cover outreach and education for the 2020 census.
With the U.S. Census Bureau encouraging respondents to answer the 2020 questions online for the first time, many worry it could exacerbate undercounting for certain communities. This could prove particularly challenging for San Juan County. Neely estimates 42% of the county’s population does not have broadband internet access. Sixteen of the 33 census tracts in San Juan County are considered hard-to-count, meaning there was a 73% response rate or less in 2010.
For some areas, like the Navajo Nation, there will be an increased number of enumerators traveling door-to-door collecting census information, he said.
Since the online census portal opens March 12, the county is currently rolling out an educational and awareness campaign about the importance of being counted. Around Census Day, on April 1, the county will start its action period, pushing for residents to complete census questionnaires before the online portal closes July 1. Part of the outreach will include messaging on how simple completing the survey is – 10 questions in under 10 minutes – with three response options (online, by mail or by phone).
Part of the county’s outreach even includes a mascot – The Count – attending community and school events to educate families and children on the importance of the census and the impacts of being undercounted. Neely said he estimates the county lost about $94.3 million in federal funding as a result of the 2010 undercount. And for 2020, he added, the 10-year revenue loss to the county for each 1% undercounted is about $37.7 million.
One challenge, Neely said, has been recruiting enough census workers in the area, with the current hiring rate falling short of the goal. People interested in working are encouraged to apply.
New Mexico is not alone in a push to provide additional funding to reach underrepresented and hard-to-count communities. Last year, Colorado also announced a state grant program available to local governments, nonprofits, school districts and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes to support an accurate 2020 census count. The state has $6 million available in funding and received more than 100 applications for the funds, according to its announcement.