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Alaska ranks very low in 2020 Census self-response, but advocates remain optimistic

Jul 29, 2020

The 2020 Census efforts began in January as enumerators and trainers began work in Toksook Bay, Alaska. The self-response phase of the 2020 Census is nearing its end, and the door-to-door phase is set to begin in August. (Photo courtesy U.S. Census Bureau)

As 2020 Census efforts continue throughout the United States, Alaska is well behind other states in regards to households self-responding either through online, telephone or by mail. In fact, the only thing that’s keeping Alaska from being in last place is Puerto Rico. And the coronavirus could impact how census takers in rural Alaska fill that gap.

More than 92 million households in the U.S. have already responded to the 2020 Census – with a national average of more than 62 percent of households. But less than half of Alaska households have self-responded.

During a national teleconference Tuesday, July 28, 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau shared updates about the count efforts among American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Donna Bach (Yup’ik) is the Tribal partnership specialist in Alaska for the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’re continuing to work diligently to make sure that everyone in Indian Country is counted as well as provide the importance about the distribution of the power and federal funding that hinges on Census participation despite the situation with COVID.”

Census data is often used by national organizations and agencies to distribute federal funding. Alaska Public Media reported in January that the state receives more than $3 billion annually from the federal government. That money funds services such as Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP benefits and school lunch programs. Which is why it’s critical to get accurate data on Alaska’s residents.

Bach says the 2020 Census is still in the self-response phase of the count. The next phase is the non-response follow-up phase. It’s the phase that most people associate with the census, where census takers go door-to-door – to households that haven’t responded -- to make sure everyone gets counted.

“Census takers will be taking social distance protocols, including any of the state, local, and Tribal health and safety regulations, said Alaina Capoeman (Quinault Nation), the Tribal partnership specialist for Washington state. "They’ have been issued PPE -- which includes masks and hand sanitizer.”

She says census takers will have a Census-provided cellphone to record data, as well as an ID badge and other identifiable markers.

But Census partners and advocates like Donna Bach say they hope people self-respond – particularly amid the pandemic.

“During the non-response follow-up phase is where those remaining households will be invited once again to respond and to avoid essentially the knock on the door or a visit," she said. "We’re highly encouraging and promoting a telephonic or internet response.”

Many parts of Alaska that have lower response rates – such as the Slope, Interior and other rural areas -- are also seeing an increase in coronavirus cases.

“This has also been a stresser for the field operations out of the area census office with current local mandates, or communities that have shut down or different levels of access protocols in anticipation of the non-response follow up,” Bach said. “There are challenges but we are working together collaboratively with our area census office managers and census field staff to have the best up to date information so that we can mitigate as much as possible any sort of spread of COVID.”

Bach says she has been talking with boroughs, municipalities and Tribal government leaders to get up-to-date information about coronavirus from those communities. She says the Census also plans to hire as many people locally as they can to count to limit potential spread.

Bach continues to hold out hope – and in a later interview says the Census is too important to Alaska to not be optimistic.

“I am a glasses half-full versus -empty type of person. I feel positive that the very basics of how to pave or shape the future is to take less than 10 minutes to do this very simple civic activity called the 2020 Census," she said. "So much hinges on this in terms of the growing number of statistics ... to track information that Alaska is going to need for the next 10 years.”

The Census Bureau will continue to work toward collecting complete field data until its deadline -- October 31st. For information, go to 2020Census.gov.