Indian Country and Census 2020: Reach and Representation

with Natalie Landreth of the Native American Rights Fund

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that multiple population groups were undercounted in the 2010 Census, impacting federal funding and congressional representation.

Natalie Landreth of the Native American Rights Fund, outlines efforts underway to ensure Natives are accurately counted in the upcoming Census.

Posted on:

January 06, 2020

Hosted by: Paul Lisnek
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Lisnek: Every 10 years, the federal government is required by law to conduct the U.S. Census. It's designed to count all Americans from all backgrounds. The Census reports that multiple population groups, including Native Americans, were under-counted in the 2010 Census, and that impacts billions in federal funds and also congressional representation. Hi. Welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Paul Lisnek. Joining me to discuss efforts to ensure an accurate count of America's native population is Natalie Landreth. She's a senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. Natalie, it's good to see you.

Landreth: Good to see you. Thank you for having me here.

Lisnek: There is an effort among states all over to basically tell everybody, "You've got to fill out the survey. It's important we get the Census accurately." I did say it impacts certain things, but why don't you clarify for viewers exactly what the impact is?

Landreth: Well, basically, between $650 and $900 billion are allocated every year based solely on Census numbers. All the different social programs -- Medicaid, everything -- they use Census statistics -- voting rights, all of that. Mostly the way people will feel the impact is through their house reapportionment. The congressional district that you're in is created based on Census data.

Lisnek: There are Native American tribes in a variety of states. I mean, South Dakota and Alaska and Arizona. When the distribution of funds or even congressional representation comes into play, is there a particular reference or designation for the tribes, or are they part of that state's population?

Landreth: There are different levels. There are what's called Census tracks, or Census areas, and then what are called "hard to count" Census tracks, and most Native American reservations will fall under this particular category of "hard to count," and the reason is because they have very nontraditional addresses -- rural route addresses, P.O. box addresses, or --

Lisnek: Third house from the corner.

Landreth: That's exactly right. Now, I think people who live in urban areas may not know that there is a significant percent of the population that has an address that is third house down the street behind the grocery store. That really exists, and the reason is because a lot of Indian reservations are federal land, and they're not plotted with actual addresses, and so, this is what makes the Census harder in Indian country. That's one of the primary reasons that it's harder.

Lisnek: In a state where that is the concern, for example, whose responsibility is it to get those numbers? Is it the state's efforts to get the Census count done properly, to potentially send people out, employees out, Census workers to those areas to visit that third house from the corner and talk to the residents to get them to sign up?

Landreth: Well, it's in everyone's interest, basically, to get out there because of all the federal dollars that are allocated to the state. Most states form Census Complete Count Committees and try and make individualized efforts on behalf of their state. But we're also advocating the creation of Tribal Complete Count Committees, because the problems this time around, I think, are going to be exacerbated based on what they were last time. But it's basically everyone's responsibility, because for every person who does not answer the Census, they cost their community $3,200 in federal money.

Lisnek: Wow. We know that the Native American population was under-counted in the 2010 Census. By how much, and what was that impact?

Landreth: So, the under-count of Native Americans is the largest of any group in the United States, and the under-count is exactly what it sounds like. It means they're counting 5% less than there actually are, which means they're receiving less federal dollars than they're entitled to, and it means they're less likely to have congressional districts that are representative of their interests, so it's hurting them directly when those Census forms are not returned.

Lisnek: As we get ready for the 2020 Census, are you feeling better, like the count was going to be accurate, or more concerned that this could be worse?

Landreth: Oh, it's going to be worse, and we can say that, basically, for four reasons. One is that, normally, the Census conducts field tests in Indian country, and by "Indian country," I mean reservations or Indian communities, even if they're off reservation. And they canceled those, too, this time, and those are helpful for them for management to identify issues in advance, and those did not occur. On the Colville Reservation in Standing Rock is where they were scheduled, and they didn't happen. The second reason that it's going to be harder this time is because of the nontraditional mailing addresses that we talked about. There are more, and there are a lot of people who now share P.O. boxes, and you're only allowed to answer the Census form that is mailed to you with your name and address, but if the chances are that you're not going to get that, the ability to return it is also harder. And so, the third problem is there's not going to be any language assistance this time around. You know, the Census takers that come out to the Navajo nation or to rural parts of Alaska aren't going to speak those native languages. But guess what? Those communities are very much still speaking their own languages. Even places like Mississippi Choctaw down in Mississippi, there are Choctaw speakers, and if you don't have that, that person cannot complete the Census form. The fourth reason it's going to be worse this time is because so much of it is reliant on the Internet, and 90% of Indian country, rural reservations, and Indian communities do not have access to broadband. So how are they supposed to get and download that form? And what on Earth e-mail address are they being sent to? We're worried about it this time that the under-count will be even higher.

Lisnek: Well, the first effort to try and make a difference, of course, is with the step of awareness, and that's what we're doing here today, is put the word out, and hopefully, maybe we can turn things around a bit for 2020. Natalie Landreth, thank you for being with me.

Landreth: Thank you.

Lisnek: And good luck with the continued work that you do.

Landreth: Thank you.

Lisnek: And thank you, as well, for joining us here on "Comcast Newsmakers." If you want more great conversations with leaders in your community or all around the country, just go to It's that easy. I'm Paul Lisnek. Thanks for watching.

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