New Mexico tribes play catch up in census count

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed long standing social and economic inequities that many say are at the root of a highly disproportionate number of Native Americans afflicted with the illness. Native Americans make up more than half of the state’s positive coronavirus cases —  the majority are in San Juan and McKinley counties — but just 10.9% of its population, according to census data. As 2020 nears its halfway point, the pandemic threatens to worsen inequities in another way: the stunting of an ambitious and energetic rollout of the 2020 census count on tribal lands that will determine the amount of money going to the state’s tribes over the next decade. 

This story was produced by New Mexico in Depth in collaboration with the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.  

Already designated a hard-to-count population, the pandemic has contributed to a staggeringly low census response rate so far from tribes — a result census officials hope to turn around during the summer into the fall.Robust responses from the tribes, officials at the census emphasize, would ensure tribal communities receive their equitable share of  federal resources to help pay for healthcare, housing, roads, and a range of other important services. In New Mexico, where nearly every school district receives education dollars through the Title I program geared to assist low-income students,  90% of Native American students attend Title 1 schools, according to the NM Native Census Coalition. Census responses also help determine the amount of money flowing to housing programs, such as the Section 8, Indian Community Development Block Grants and the Indian Housing Block Grant that supports new or reconstruction of homes on tribal lands.