State, nonprofits brainstorm overcoming 2020 census hurdles

August 26, 2019 GMT

ISLETA PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico officials are pulling out the stops to encourage 2020 census participation, from promotional recordings in Native American languages to outreach to military veterans and oilfield workers who live in temporary “man camps.”

At a conference Monday at Isleta Pueblo, state officials said they want to overcome persistent roadblocks that have made the rural Southwest state’s Native American and Hispanic populations among the toughest in the nation to count.

New Mexico stands to face economic development setbacks and lose tens of millions of dollars in federal funding without a complete count of its population because companies and U.S. agencies often rely on census data for decision making.


Even a slight population undercount could result in significant losses, so developing local campaigns that come in addition to the U.S. Census Bureau’s push to promote participation is crucial, said Robert Rhatigan, associate director of Geospatial & Population Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration estimates the state receives about $7.8 billion annually from the federal government based on census counts to underwrite health care, educational programs, transportation, housing and more.

The state Legislature has set aside $3.5 million for a commission to encourage census participation.

“There’s only so far that messaging from the federal government is going to go,” he said. “You have to use localized messaging developed by local trusted voices. We’re strategizing to that end.”

His analysis of federal funding and census data has found that a 1% undercount could lead to a $32 million per year hit in Medicaid funding alone for New Mexico. There are roughly 300 other federal programs that develop funding models based on population, he said.

An audit of the census found a nearly 2% undercount of the population in 2000. There was essentially no notable undercount in 2010, when there was a high volume of census workers who fanned out to collect data thanks in part to high unemployment rates at the time and additional funding through a federal stimulus package to promote the count, Rhatigan said.

This year, state officials and nonprofit leaders say they are contending with the risk that misinformation will hurt participation because of government mistrust. Limited broadband access in remote areas of New Mexico also presents a challenge.

While federal officials are still planning to dispatch census staff to knock on doors, they are expected to place an emphasis next year on gathering data through telephone and online questionnaires.


Lynn Trujillo, the cabinet secretary for New Mexico’s Indian Affairs Department, said a message emerging among tribes to encourage participation appears to focus on funding needs for children and future generations.

Laura Weahkee, the executive director of the Native American Voter Alliance, said that approach to stressing participation was key, and tapped into deeper values in tribal communities.

“That for us is not just messaging,” she said.