Census to end month early, aid threatened

By Bradley Gernand

The 2020 United States Census—until now thought to conclude on Oct. 31—has been shortened and will now close out its data-gathering operations on Sept. 30, the Census Bureau announced Aug. 3. It will do so with the population count still underway across southeastern Oklahoma, and with the region still lagging in its response rate.

As of August, county response rates within the Choctaw Nation were as follows—Atoka County, 47.2%; Bryan County, 52.5%; Choctaw County, 43.2%; Coal County, 42.3%; Haskell County, 45.6%; Hughes County, 43.5%; Latimer County, 42.6%; LeFlore County, 51%; McCurtain County, 43.5%; Pittsburg County, 35.6%; and Pushmataha County, 36.5%. Oklahoma’s overall statewide response rate—driven by its metropolitan areas—was 57.6%, and nationwide, the response rate was 63%.

The announcement, described as an “update” to the Census Bureau’s plan, said all data-gathering, including the ability of the public to respond to the Census, will cease at the end of September. The bureau did not say how it intends to ensure a full and accurate count on the shorter timeline.

Census officials initially intended to conclude the Census on July 24. Closures and delays associated with the COVID-19 pandemic stalled Census operations significantly, causing the bureau to extend this year’s once-in-a-decade Census until Oct. 31. That date has now been pushed forward to Sept. 30.

“I’m disappointed by the administration’s decision to truncate the 2020 U.S. Census a month early,” said Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton. “Tribal, state and local governments receive federal aid to assist with infrastructure, social services, healthcare, and education, among other important things. The aid we receive is, in general, based on the population count of the most recent Census. A successful 2020 Census is mission-critical for both our people and our region. This will now be more difficult to attain.”

“It’s like the rug was pulled from under our feet,” said Melissa Landers, coordinator of the tribe’s Census preparation effort. “We can’t just turn on a dime—the government said the Census was ending on Oct. 31, and we planned our outreach campaign around that date.” Billboards have been booked, airtime for TV and radio commercials have scheduled, and the tribe’s Public Events staff has kicked off a series of public engagements at Travel Plazas, health clinics and other locations.

These events have been successful, and Choctaw Nation staff have assisted many tribal members in completing their Census forms. “The trouble is, we can’t compress two months of effort into just one and ensure we’ve done all we can to achieve the highest possible count of Choctaw tribal members,” Landers said.

A tribe-wide survey initiated by the Choctaw government was designed to provide real-time data to Tribal Headquarters providing the number of tribal members who have filled out the Census, and the areas in which they live. The results were intended to allow a focused marketing campaign to target the lowest-response areas, using direct mail, visits by tribal staff to members’ homes, and social media. This will no longer be possible, Landers notes—there won’t be enough time between the end of the survey and Sept. 30.

Indian rights advocates across the United States have protested the government’s move to shorten the Census, saying indigenous peoples are hard to count. The Census Bureau, in its statement, said a full and proper count would be achieved, although it offered no details on how to meet this goal.

Trump administration officials say politics is not the cause of the move. By cutting off the count on Sept. 30, they say, the results will be tallied and tabulated in time to inform congressional redistricting efforts in the spring. But a senior Census Bureau official told a public gathering that it is already too late for that.

The Choctaw government has missed out on a lot of federal aid dollars due to the regional and tribal undercount in the most recent Census, in 2010, Chief Batton said. This year alone, it missed out on over $100 million in CARES Act emergency funding due, in part, to the low Census count in 2010.

Cities and counties across southeastern Oklahoma also missed out on important funding, Choctaw officials say, pointing out that every county within the Choctaw Nation lost out on millions of federal dollars during the past decade. For McCurtain County alone, the cost was $26 million. For economically strapped Pushmataha County, it was $9 million. At least $3,900 in federal aid per year is received as a direct result of each person counted in the Census. The money goes toward roads, schools, healthcare, and other important aspects.

It is not too late to respond to the U.S. Census! Every home should have received a printed form. The Census is also available online at 2020Census.gov or by calling 844-330-2020.

Results of the 2020 U.S. Census will be announced in December.