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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Census Count Still Far From Complete On The Navajo Nation, As End Date Looms

A photo of a man nailing something to a house.
Kate Groetzinger
An employee of the Rural Utah Project nails an address sign on a house on the Navajo Nation. Most homes on the Nation do not have street addresses, which makes it harder to self-respond to the census.

The Navajo Nation joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this month seeking to restore the census deadline to the end of October, which is when the bureau originally said it would end the count — before moving the deadline up in August. And last week, a federal judge issued an order to keep the bureau from winding down the count early.

Still, the census could end any day now, depending on how the court case plays out — and the count is still far from complete on the Navajo Nation, in part due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Only around 20% of households on the Navajo Nation have self-responded to the questionnaire so far, and workers have yet to make it to over 25% of the households that did not self-respond. The bureau cannot calculate the total response rate for tribal areas, as it can for states, according to Cathy Lacy, a regional director with the bureau.

Without knowing the current response rate, it’s unclear how big the undercount will be, according to Lillian Schwales, an attorney for the Navajo Nation. She said an undercount like the one in 2010 would result in a loss of federal funding, again.

“It significantly impacts the aid and funding that comes to the Navajo Nation, and that’s huge, particularly when we’re dealing with one third of the population who doesn’t have running water or electricity,” Schwales said. “That really contributed to the problems with the pandemic.”

In the past month, the Navajo Nation has made a big push to “get out the count”, according to Schwales. She said the government has purchased radio and social media advertisements aimed at getting members of the Navajo Nation to self-respond to the census — and non-profit organizations — like the Rural Utah Project, have held in-person census drives to help people fill out their questionnaire online.

But it barely made a dent in the self-response rate for the Navajo Nation, which was 18% at the beginning of this month.

“After all that, it’s still at 21%,” Schwales said. “If we had a chance to keep that up, we might be able to beat the 2010 numbers.”

But the most effective form of raising the response rate is in the hands of the Census Bureau, she said, which sends workers to each household to fill out the questionnaire in-person.

“Paper is what people are used to,” she said. “So they’re still waiting for enumerators to show up and fill out the census with them.”

The non-response follow up operation on the Navajo Nation is still in full swing, according to Lacy, who said the bureau brought workers in from outside the Navajo Nation to help with the count.

“We’re focused on getting every household reached, and getting a response for every household,” Lacy said. “And we’re on the ground doing that right now.”

It is possible that the bureau could end the count and then be forced to start it back up, depending on the court’s decision. If that happend, Lacy said the operation on the Navajo Nation could lose some momentum.

“I think people have lives,” she said. “If there were a hypothetical shut down, some [census workers] may not come back.”

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced Monday afternoon that Oct. 5 is the “target date” to conclude census operations. It’s unclear how this affects the lawsuit, and whether that will be the last day of the 2020 count.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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