In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau will undertake efforts to count the entire U.S population through the constitutionally mandated U.S. Census. Conducted once every 10 years, the census produces critical data. At the federal level, census data affects everything from the reapportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to the disbursement of almost $800 billion in annual federal funding to the enforcement of state and federal laws.
For Alaska, the decennial census determines the allocation of $3.2 billion of annual federal funding. Over 70 programs that benefit Alaskans rely on census data to determine funding, for everything from infrastructure projects and education to healthcare and housing. Without an accurate count, Alaskan communities are at risk of losing federal funding for critical programs and services. An inaccurate census count also means that organizations across our state—tribes, governments, nonprofits, and for-profit organizations—do not have the accurate information they need to plan and invest in Alaskan communities. The accuracy of census data can be the difference between knowing whether and when to invest in a new grocery store location or a new flight route and choosing to forgo that investment.
In other words, when Alaskans go uncounted, the entire state loses out. But achieving an accurate count in Alaska is not easy.
Alaska is the largest and least densely populated state in the country and poses unique challenges to an accurate count. Alaska encompasses one-fifth of the total landmass of the United States within its 586,000 square miles, an area greater than Texas, California, and Montana combined. The state is geographically varied—the Census Bureau must count areas ranging from remote rural villages to dispersed islands to larger urban areas. Other barriers to achieving an accurate count include the variety of languages spoken across the state, barriers to internet connectivity, the prevalence of historically hard-to-count populations, and limited resources dedicated to ensuring an accurate count in 2020.
We know from past censuses, including the 2010 Census, that certain populations in Alaska are especially difficult to count. According to Census Bureau estimates, the 2010 U.S. Census undercounted Alaskans in the state’s special-enumeration tracts—areas that require special counting methods due to their hard-to-reach populations—by 8%. The 2010 Census also undercounted AI/AN populations living on reservations or on tribal lands by almost 5%. Across the country, other groups—including Hispanic and black populations, renters, people experiencing homelessness, and children under the age of 5—were all undercounted in 2010.
Recognizing the risks of an undercount, the Alaska Census Working Group (ACWG) formed in 2017 to encourage participation in the census in all Alaska communities. The group is spearheaded by The Foraker Group and Cook Inlet Housing Authority and its membership includes public, private, nonprofit and tribal entities from across the state.
Originally focused on identifying census-related issues that might affect Alaska and advocating for sufficient resources and appropriate counting methods, the ACWG is turning to its “ground game.” This means outlining and implementing an outreach strategy to communicate the importance of the census, especially to historically hard-to-count populations across the state. The 2020 Census count will begin early in Alaska on January 21, 2020 in Toksook Bay. The goal of the ACWG is to ensure a fair and accurate count of all Alaskans when that count begins.
For more information or questions, please contact Mike Walsh, MPA, PhD, Vice President of Public Policy, The Foraker Group. 907.479.0472 www.forakergroup.org
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