HELENA — The U.S. Census gives a snapshot of the country’s population that helps guide government decisions for the next ten years. However, a report shows the most recent census may have significantly undercounted several population groups -- including, of particular note in Montana, Native Americans.
The U.S. Census Bureau released an analysis last month that looked at the quality of the 2020 Census data. They determined the country’s overall population numbers were fairly accurate, especially given the challenges they faced in counting during the pandemic.
“Today’s results show statistical evidence that the quality of the 2020 Census total population count is consistent with that of recent censuses,” Census Bureau director Robert Santos said in a news release at the time. “This is notable, given the unprecedented challenges of 2020. But the results also include some limitations — the 2020 Census undercounted many of the same population groups we have historically undercounted, and it overcounted others.”
The bureau’s Post-Enumeration Survey estimates the Black and Hispanic populations were undercounted, while Asian and non-Hispanic white populations were overcounted.
The largest noted discrepancy for any racial group was for American Indian and Alaska Native populations living on reservations, with an estimated undercount of 5.64%. It’s been a persistent issue, as the same group was undercounted by 4.88% in the 2010 Census.
“Going into 2020, especially once COVID hit, we weren’t very Pollyanna about what the effect was going to be,” said Ta’jin Perez, deputy director of Western Native Voice.
Groups like WNV worked with the state of Montana in 2020, as part of a statewide effort to encourage people to complete the census. Perez says there were special challenges in counting on tribal lands, including strict COVID policies, highly dispersed populations, general mistrust of the government and not enough census takers from the local communities.
If Montana tribal members were missed during the census, it could have lasting impacts. Population data plays a big role in the distribution of federal money.
“The funding that goes to Indian Country is directly tied to the census and to the individuals that can be claimed as tribal members, as well as just general individuals who live within these communities,” said Perez.
The census results will also be used to draw updated Montana legislative districts. Perez believes the undercount could have an impact on Native voters’ influence.
“There’s really a risk, the chance of underrepresentation of Native Americans in our Legislature, which would be a roll-back of the progress that has been fought for for generations to this point,” he said. “So this really has far-reaching consequences.”
The Census Bureau says American Indian and Alaska Native populations off the reservation were not as heavily undercounted, but Perez said it’s always been difficult to fully count those populations in Montana.
“In our opinion, it’s very hard to determine whether or not there was an undercount, but this is a really great opportunity to elevate the fact that urban Natives do miss out a lot on the representation when it comes to advocacy on Native issues,” he said.
At a news conference after the release of this data, Census Bureau leaders said they plan to work closely with tribes in the coming years to in hopes of reducing mistrust and creating partnerships to get more accurate counts on reservations.