Effective policymaking to address the challenges of improving the socioeconomic status and well-being of Native peoples depends on accurate and reliable data. Policymakers at the tribal, federal, and state level depend on data to develop policy that effectively meets the needs of Native people. To that extent, effective data collection in Indian Country is an essential need and is an important mandate for federal agencies. Fulfilling the federal government’s trust responsibility to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes requires accurate data on tribal needs and resources.

The Census is a critical and powerful information source that will significantly influence American policy for the coming decade. It is the foundation of American democracy in that it determines the allocation of Congressional seats. It is also used extensively to distribute funds to tribal, state, and local governments, and it serves as a foundation for policymaking as well as research and program evaluation in think tanks, universities, and at all levels of government.

In the time leading up to the 2010 Census, NCAI’s Census education campaign, Indian Country Counts, focused on educating Native citizens about the importance of participating in the Census activities. 

2020 Census

NCAI will again undertake a public education and outreach campaign for the 2020 Census. An accurate count of AI/AN people in 2020 is important for the following reasons.

Foundational to Democracy: The decennial census is a foundational tenet of American democracy, mandated in article 1, section 2 of the US Constitution and central to our representative form of government. A fair democracy requires an accurate population count. The U.S. population is enumerated every 10 years and census data are used to allocate Congressional seats, electoral votes, and is the basis for political redistricting. Under the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal representation, congressional districts must have roughly equal numbers of people, so census data are used to draw district lines. Public Law 94-171 governs the release of census data for redistricting at the federal, state, and local levels, and an accurate count is necessary to ensure that American Indian and Alaska Native voters have an equal voice in the political process of non-tribal elections. Jurisdictions also use census data to comply with the Voting Rights Act, such as making sure Native voters have access to language assistance when they cast their votes in an election.

Essential to Fair Resource Distribution: In addition to its use in fair voting representation, census data play a key role in the fair distribution of billions of dollars to tribes and AI/AN people across the nation. Federal funding for Indian schools, Indian education programs, Indian health programs, Indian housing programs, water and sewage projects, roads, and economic development are distributed on the basis of data collected by the Census Bureau. (See NCAI's testimony for more details on Census data impact on tribal funding.)

American Indians/Alaska Natives at Risk for Undercounts: Certain population groups are at higher risk of being missed in the decennial census – groups considered hard-to-count. Native people especially on reservations and in Alaska Native villages have been historically underrepresented in the census, and in 2020, new methodologies for enumerating the US population could put other groups at risk. In the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau estimates that American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations or in Native villages were undercounted by approximately 4.9 percent, more than double the undercount rate of the next closest population group.  

The net undercount for American Indians living on reservations was also very high in 1990, with an estimated 12.2 percent missed. About one in three Native people live in hard-to-count census tracts. The Census Bureau identifies twelve characteristics that are associated with census undercounts, including linguistic isolation, poverty, low educational attainment, lacking a telephone, unemployment, and others. A recent report found that although the rural population is generally easier to enumerate than the urban population, certain rural areas will be difficult to count in 2020, such as American Indians on reservations and Alaska Natives, as well as Hispanics in the Southwest, residents of Appalachia, migrant workers, and African Americans in the rural South. 

A large proportion of American Indians/Alaska Natives in certain states live in hard-to-count (HTC) tracts; for instance, in New Mexico 78.6 percent of AI/AN people live in HTC tracts, 68.1 percent in Arizona, 65.6 percent in Alaska, 52.4 percent in South Dakota, and 49.9 percent in Montana. 

Households in poverty are very hard to count: in 2015, 38.3 percent of Native individuals on reservations were living in poverty compared to the national rate of 13 percent. Young children are also undercounted at disproportionately high rates compared to other age groups, and Native people on reservations have a median age nine years lower than the national average. The poverty rate is 46.3% for AI/AN-alone youth ages 0 to 17 in reservation areas. Many of the characteristics that make American Indians and Alaska Native hard to count persist, such as economic hardship and education, and thus the Census Bureau will again need the resources, robust partners, and trusted messengers to enumerate accurately the AI/AN population in the 2020 Census.

Ways to Take Action

Advocacy with Congress: Help your members of Congress understand the importance of adequately funding the Census Bureau to conduct the 2020 Census and avoid undercounting the AI/AN population.

Stay informed about census policy and operational developments with the Census Project, which provides regular updates on census activities in Congress and the Administration.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights census page also provides many resources.

In addition, the Census Bureau released reports in September 2017 describing its extensive consultations with tribal communities in the years prior. Tribal officials, planners, and community leaders can review the recommendations within the report and push for implementation of needed strategies and approaches for the 2020 Census. The reports are linked below:

      2020 Census Tribal Consultations with Federally Recognized Tribes
      2020 Census Tribal Consultations with State-Recognized Tribes
      2020 Census Tribal Consultations with Oklahoma Tribes
      2020 Census Tribal Consultations with the Navajo Nation

Join Complete Count Committees. Educate state, tribal, and local leaders about the challenges Native people will face in the 2020 Census. Advocates can join Tribal Complete Count Committees that will be established among many tribes to ensure a complete 2020 census.

Become a Census Bureau Partner. Partners (organizations, associations, institutions, and the like) will receive timely updates from the Census Bureau as well as promotional materials. Tribal government departments and agencies, such as enrollment offices, IHS clinics and hospitals, senior centers, housing authorities, casinos and others can play a role as partners in the 2020 Census.

Participate in the Census Bureau's Tribal Government Liaison Program. The Census Bureau will use a Tribal Government Liaison Program in 2020 to educate tribal members, provide a trusted voice, and offer training on the 2020 Census. Tribal governments should appoint liaisons to ensure the success of this program.

Learn more about NCAI’s Policy Research Center.

Testimony & Speeches

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