It is hard to put a number on much of what makes New Mexico unique, from the beauty of its desert sunsets to the taste of its chile.
Turns out, it is tough to put a number on its population, too.
Nearly half of New Mexico's nearly 2.1 million residents live in areas where the U.S. Census Bureau has a particularly hard time counting the population — a larger proportion than any other state, according to an analysis by the City University of New York.
With the bureau proposing to rely more on the Internet in tallying all of America’s residents against the backdrop of tightening funding constraints, conservatives and Democratic lawmakers alike warn there is a big risk New Mexicans will be undercounted and consequently underrepresented.
The analysis found 48 percent of New Mexicans live in areas where the population is hard to count. Alaska has the second-highest rate, with about 44 percent, followed by New York with about 37 percent. On the other end of the list, only 3 percent of Minnesotans, Idahoans and Iowans live in areas considered hard to count.
Counting every single American is a massive undertaking and difficult in any circumstance. To get a tally of the population, the U.S. Census Bureau has relied on mailing surveys to each household and dispatching an army of temporary workers to knock on the doors of those who do not respond. Obtaining an accurate head count gets a lot harder in communities that are difficult to navigate, such as New Mexico’s frontiers, and communities where people might move around regularly with no fixed address or simply will not open the door for a government worker.
Though the federal government says it overcounted the country’s total population by about .01 percent and New Mexicans by about .16 percent during the last census in 2010, some argue the state and particular groups within it could be overlooked if the agency scales back its door-knocking and outreach in favor of online data. In 2010, for example, American Indians living on reservations were undercounted by about 4.88 percent. People who identified as Hispanic were undercounted by about 1.54 percent.
The consequences of undercounting can be long-lasting and far-reaching.
The U.S. Constitution requires the federal government conduct a census every 10 years. The data is in turn used to draw the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts, determining in part how much political power communities get on Capitol Hill and in the Roundhouse. Government agencies use the data to make decisions about spending on a range of programs, too, from highway maintenance to school lunches and Medicaid.
Businesses also use information gathered in the census when deciding where to invest, what to pay their workers and even what they should stock on their store shelves.
But the census is expensive. If run the same way as the 2010 census, the 2020 edition will cost about $17.5 billion, according to the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Committee. To avoid increasing costs, the federal government is drastically changing how it conducts the census.
The 2020 Census will be the first conducted largely online, providing households an option to fill out the survey over the Internet, which officials say could boost responses while keeping costs in check. The Census Bureau also is considering using data from private companies and files from other government agencies to fill in the gaps when households do not respond.
Observers say that will present its own problems in states like New Mexico.
Civil rights groups say the bureau has long undercounted communities that may be particularly difficult to reach, requiring more on-the-ground efforts to ensure the decennial count accurately includes racial and ethnic minorities, people with low incomes, immigrants, children and the homeless.
“While the 2020 Census will deploy new technologies and procedures designed to reduce paperwork and save money, those changes will not by themselves overcome the challenges of reaching hard-to-count areas,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the City University of New York Mapping Service.
Romalewski found congressional districts where relatively few people return their census surveys in the mail also tended to have more households without Internet access.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s own estimates, New Mexico is one of the least internet-connected states in the country. About one out of five households does not have access to the internet.
The state’s population has risen from about 1.8 million in 2000 to about 2 million in 2010, but is estimated to have stagnated during the recession.
In turn, observers on the left and right have raised concerns that the Census Bureau is scaling back plans to test its new system. Congress usually raises the agency’s budget in the years approaching a census. But for the last budget year, it provided about $160 million less than the agency had requested. And President Donald Trump has proposed relatively little additional funding for the bureau.
Observers say that leaves the Census Bureau short of what it needs to pull off planned changes before 2020.
“This is yet another example of how irresponsible budget cuts can have a profound impact on citizens for years to come,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, said through a spokeswoman. “Increasingly relying on internet surveys is a mistake that will lead to an inaccurate picture of New Mexico and other states where a larger than average proportion of the population does not have access to the internet.”
Writing recently for Bloomberg, Northwestern University economist Diane Schanzenbach and Michael Strain, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argued “this lack of investment is penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
“If the Census Bureau does not have adequate resources to invest in developing a new modern infrastructure for 2020, it will have to do one of two things,” they wrote. “It could resort to the old, expensive approach to ensure an adequate count, driving up costs to taxpayers. Or it could conduct a lower-quality census, diminishing the value of the data.”
Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.