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Delayed By COVID-19, Census Bureau Plays Catch-Up In Rural And Tribal Areas

A graphic showing the U.S. Constitution and a Census questionnaire.
U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau had just begun field operations when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, as the agency is preparing to restart, it’s focusing on rural and tribal communities.

"We went three days in dropping off questionnaires and updating addresses, and then the pandemic took over and we had to shut everything down," said Tim Olson, who runs the bureau's field operations.

Olson estimates that 90% of rural America has yet to receive a census questionnaire. Compare that to the more than 60% of Americans nationwide who have already responded. More remote areas require more fieldwork, in part because workers need to confirm addresses there, Olson said.

The last time around, in 2010, the bureau undercounted American Indians and Alaskan Natives living on reservations by 4.9%, and it wants to fix that this time.

But as workers get back in the field, Olson said it’ll again be a challenge to reach some tribal areas. Many of those communities have been hit hard by COVID-19 and are keeping their borders closed.

The Navajo Nation, for example, which has the most cases per capita than any state, currently has a self-response rate of 0.8%, according to the Census Bureau.

"We are consulting regularly with the leadership of each of those tribes, and once they give us the go-ahead, we will resume the operations," Olson said, adding that the bureau is trying to hire more workers in Indian Country.

Last month the bureau announced a plan to extend the window for field data collection and self-response through October.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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