Correct census count important for Southeast Oklahoma

By Bradley Gernand

OHS Archivist Jon May
Photo by Chris Jennings

A book of the Old Testament—the Book of Numbers—derives its name from two ancient censuses of the Israelites.  The most famous census during Biblical times was taken at the time of Christ’s birth, as reported in Luke 2:1-5, and is a story known to generations of Christians.  The need for countries to count their populations continues today.

 The United States has conducted a census every ten years since 1790.  This year, 2020, marks the twenty-fourth.  In addition to counting residents, the upcoming census asks several questions designed to provide a glimpse of the health and well-being of the United States—a snapshot of life in the country at this particular point in time. 

 During the last U.S. Census in 2010, a worrying trend played out across southeastern Oklahoma, and was particularly pronounced in parts of the Choctaw Nation, which comprises all or parts of 13 counties.  Large areas of the Choctaw Nation were categorized after the Census as low-response areas.  In some places as many as 58% of households failed to fill out and return the Census. 

 Chief Gary Batton, seeking a better outcome in 2020, has convened a planning group to organize the tribe’s response to the challenge.  These representatives from several departments and agencies of the Choctaw Nation have met weekly since July 2019.  “We need to get the word out to all Choctaw tribal members, wherever they live, that we want them to fill out and return the Census,” said Melissa Landers, the group’s coordinator. 

 During the succeeding ten years the incomplete count from 2010 has made itself felt in several ways.

 Southeastern Oklahoma has failed to qualify for the full amount of federal and state aid it would have received if all its residents had been counted in 2010.  This aid typically translates into support for health care, public works, infrastructure and roadways, and education.  The larger the number of residents appearing in the Census, the more money is typically made available.

 For the Choctaw Nation, which derives a portion of its budget from the federal and state grants it receives to carry out education, health care, and other programs, the funding shortfall has been particularly noticeable.  In the case of one recent grant the Nation received $200,000, rather than the $1.2 million dollars it would have received had a full count of Choctaw tribal members living in its service territory been tallied.

 Several of the affected programs service tribal members who live outside the Choctaw Nation’s boundaries, making it an issue of nationwide scope.

 The 2020 Census is already in full swing.  Thousands of census field workers, called enumerators, are already out canvassing neighborhoods to confirm physical addresses.  On April 1, print forms will be mailed to every household in the nation and recipients may begin completing and returning them.  The Census concludes on July 24. 

 The Census Bureau is expected to announce the new population counts by Dec. 31, 2020.  It estimates the population of the United States will be approximately 333,546,000, an 8.03% increase from the 2010 Census.  The number of Choctaw Nation tribal members is currently 226,000, and “We hope each of them will be counted in the Census,” Landers says.