Note: this is the seventh installment in our series on policies that will impact equity in New Mexico. You can read the introduction, which gives more information on what we mean by ‘equity’ and what the disparities are, and link to previous blogs in the series here.
By Javier Rojo
If the global coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all in this life together. How well we weather this virus will depend on everyone doing their part because we are all connected. It’s also taught us that our government has a valuable role to play and that we depend upon it when decisive leadership and swift action are needed. These same lessons hold true for the 2020 census – we all have an important part to play in a nation-wide tally in which each and every one of us counts.
Although Covid-19 has brought the nation and our state to a stand-still, New Mexicans still have ample opportunity to fill out their census forms. For the first time in history, the census is being administered online. This has the fortuitous consequence of minimizing human contact in a time when everyone should be practicing social distancing. In addition, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, the Census Bureau has momentarily suspended field activities and extended the filing deadline from July 31 to August 14.
The decennial census has one simple overarching mission: to count every person living in America every decade. Though the mission is straight-forward, accomplishing it can often be a herculean task. Some communities are considered harder to count than others. Communities with large rural populations, immigrants, Native Americans living in tribal lands, and people without internet access are all chronically undercounted. New Mexico has one of the highest rates of hard-to-count communities in the country. As a result, during the 2010 Census some New Mexican populations were significantly undercounted: for example, Native Americans and Hispanics were undercounted by nearly 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively. And a census undercount isn’t just a problem of arithmetic – it has real-world implications.
The census is used to draw voting districts for everything from school districts up to congressional districts, and it determines the apportionment of Electoral College votes. In other words, it’s used to distribute political power. The census is also used to allocate crucial federal funding for health care, school meals, highways, and education programs. This year, New Mexico received an estimated $8 billion in federal funding, which was mostly determined by the 2010 census count. In concrete terms, a population underestimate means a muffled political voice and fewer federal dollars.
This is bad news for New Mexico’s communities of color, which are already underserved and politically disenfranchised. In the Navajo Nation, for instance, more than 80 percent of the roads are unpaved. With an accurate 2010 census count, the Navajo Nation would have received more federal funding to pave the roads. Overall, an undercount of just 1 percent would cost the state an estimated $750 million over the next 10 years, which means fewer resources for vital government programs New Mexicans depend on like health care, education, and school meal programs.
Aside from being a hard-to-count state, New Mexico will face another grave challenge to an accurate count this year. The Trump Administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the census could contribute to an undercount of certain groups. Fortunately, courts ultimately blocked the citizenship question. Court filings and investigative reporting revealed that the motives behind adding the question were an attempt to limit the political power of people of color. This is deeply disturbing, but equally troubling is the fact that many immigrant communities will be afraid to fill out their census form, resulting in an undercount. Even without the citizenship questions, immigrant communities fear that personal information could be used against them and their families.
Luckily, it isn’t all gloom and doom. Earlier this year, the Legislature unanimously passed and the Governor signed into law the bipartisan Senate Bill 4, which appropriates $8 million from the General Fund to conduct state-wide outreach for Census 2020. The funds will be used to conduct social media campaigns and as outreach grants for local counties, tribal governments, and community-based organizations.
These state dollars are critical for an accurate census count and the state must continue to ensure that these funds are distributed in a timely and equitable way. Time is of the essence, as fears about the citizenship question linger and underfunding threaten to weaken the Census Bureau’s ability to undertake this largest peacetime activity mandated by the Constitution.
When it comes to the decennial census, if you’re not counted your political power and monetary resources are limited. For New Mexico – a state that is consistently undercounted – an accurate population count is paramount. This year, when the 2020 Census comes (figuratively) knocking on our door, we have to make sure we’re ready to answer.
Javier Rojo, MPA, is a research and policy analyst at New Mexico Voices for Children.