Census back in full swing, with precautions
You need not look any further than the recent allocation of $600 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding to Navajo to know how important U.S. Census data is.
That allocation, made by the U.S. Treasury Department, was based on Navajo census population data — just one more reminder that the CARES Act money is truly “the people’s money” and being counted counts.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there were more than 332,000 Navajo citizens living in the U.S., with approximately 173,000 living on the reservation.
Many are eager to find out what the 2020 numbers will look like, but that requires everyone to do their part by being counted.
As of yesterday, the national response rate for the 2020 Census questionnaire in the U.S. overall was 61.6 percent while the response rate for Navajo is 2.2 percent, which means there is much work still to be done.
Part of the disparity in responses on Navajo is due to the coronavirus pandemic, which caused a delay in delivering questionnaires to Navajo households.
Off-reservation citizens with standard U.S. addresses received their census information in the mail so there was little or no interruption because of COVID-19.
As Arbin Mitchell explained just three days after the Navajo Census operation started on March 15, the entire Census came to a halt nationwide because of safety concerns and emergency orders.
“We were in full swing,” said Mitchell, who is in charge of the Census effort on Navajo. “Our momentum was good and we had a good plan going in.”
Within those first three days, over 3,000 Census questionnaires were delivered on Navajo.
Since that time, Navajo Census employees have been working a reduced schedule from home and completing online trainings, including a COVID-19 overview, said Mitchell.
Key managerial staff have continued working in the Census office in Window Rock, and have been busy doing outreach to leadership and chapters through email and social media.
Now the “Update Leave Operation” workers are once again mobilized across Navajo and are delivering questionnaires to people’s doorsteps in plastic bags.
The enumerators are taking every coronavirus safety precaution as required by the Navajo Nation, including wearing masks and using hand-sanitizer, said Mitchell.
“If you see them in your area, don’t worry, because they are doing ‘no contact’ drop-offs,” assured Navajo 2020 Complete Count Commission Chairman James Adakai of Oljato Chapter. “Don’t be intimidated or scared. We’re just moving forward with the plan to get everyone counted.”
Because their work is considered an essential government function, the Navajo census workers received special permission from the Navajo Health Command Center to do census packet drop-offs during curfew hours.
“The enumerator will go to each house and update addresses on their devices,” he said. “There’s no interaction with the household.”
Mitchell says as of right now he has approximately 210 employees, and he is looking to hire up to another hundred enumerators this week.
Before the pandemic hit, they were already actively hiring, and have a pool of over 1,000 applicants who are ready to go to work, but still need to go through background checks.
The deadline by which all of the questionnaire drop-offs have to happen is July 7.
After that, workers will transition to the “Non-Response Operation,” where they go back into the field to follow up with those who failed to submit their census forms. That will occur between Aug. 11 and Oct. 31, the deadline for completing the census.
‘We have to make it work’
Mitchell says he hopes all the people who receive their questionnaires will self-respond, so enumerators won’t have to return for an in-person visit during the pandemic.
He said, for example, if only 20 percent of people self-respond, his team will have to go back to 80 percent of the households.
“For the people that don’t self-respond, we’re going to knock on the door saying that you didn’t send your questionnaire back so now we’re going to do an interview,” said Mitchell.
There are three options to self-respond and avoid that, he said: internet, phone or mail.
“This is the very first time in 130 years since we’ve been doing the Census that the Navajo Nation is doing a self-response,” he said.
There is a caveat, however, with the internet and phone response. You must provide the identification number that is on the questionnaire form that has been or will be delivered to you.
“Wait until you receive the packet, which has your ID number,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell recognizes not everyone has good phone or internet connectivity.
“We have to overcome these barriers,” he said. “We have to make it work.”
He said the Navajo Nation Division of Community Development website has a map that shows where free Wi-Fi internet connectivity is offered on the Nation.
“We’re telling people, if you don’t have Wi-Fi, you can go to a chapter parking lot and fill out the census,” said Mitchell.
He said those individuals who have not received the questionnaire or think they might have been missed it can call the Navajo Census office at 928-288-6234 and request one.
That same number can be called if people have questions about how to fill out the form.
As a convenient alternative, the questionnaire can be easily done over the phone by calling the national Census phone line at 844-330-2020. To complete the census online, visit 2020census.gov.
Regardless of how you choose to complete the Census questionnaire, your information is kept anonymous and is only used to produce statistics. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau is bound by law to keep your answers confidential.
‘We want to have an impact’
Getting a complete census count on Navajo is critically important to the future of the Nation because it impacts so many vital federally funded services, including schools, health programs, emergency response, housing, food assistance, roads, and more.
“It’s very important that we get our fair share of what is given out by the federal government,” said Mitchell. “We benefit from these programs as Navajo.”
Accurate Census data also ensures equitable representation in government at the county, state and national level, as districting is also dependent on census population data.
“We want to have an impact as Native Americans to make sure our voices are heard,” said Mitchell.
Adakai said that while it is a tough time in the midst of the pandemic, he encourages everyone to take a proactive approach when they receive their Census packet.
In a June 10 press release, the Navajo Nation Council urged Diné to respond to the Census as soon as possible in order to secure full community funding for future generations.
“Our main priority is to get every Navajo person counted,” said Navajo Nation Speaker Seth Damon.