Changing deadlines for the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 count have become a pain for Patricia Boies.
“It’s like whiplash,” she said.
Boies, director of Santa Fe County’s Health Services Division and head of census operations in the county, had just heard that Thursday is the final day for U.S. residents to get counted.
Census workers and community activists trying to boost participation in the count have been adapting to new deadlines for months. The Census Bureau announced in August its original deadline — Oct. 31 — was being changed to Sept. 30. The date has changed at least twice since then, in part due to a court case aiming to force the Trump administration to allow the count to continue until Oct. 31.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week, however, that officials could end the census Oct. 15.
What an undercount means for New Mexico is the possible loss of millions of dollars for public programs. The federal government uses census data to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in state aid for a wide range of programs, from education and health care to housing, transportation and capital infrastructure.
The good news: The Census Bureau reports a 99.9 percent rate of response from New Mexico households. As of Tuesday, 58.5 percent of New Mexicans had self-responded to the census, which in most cases means they filled out their forms online on their own, without the help of a census worker.
The bad news, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said, is “the 99.9 percent count listed by the U.S. Census is not necessarily accurate.”
“It gives no indication about data quality, and the rush to complete the census that has been created by the federal government has increased the likelihood that operational shortcuts were taken, resulting in proper data not being collected from New Mexico households,” Nora Meyers Sackett said.
Some county leaders organizing census activities also wonder if the push to finish the count early is leading to data errors.
Cristina Caltagirone, special projects coordinator for Rio Arriba County, said, “These very high numbers don’t appear to be legitimate from our ground-level experience.”
As of Wednesday, her county’s self-response rate was just over 32 percent.
In a county where the vast majority of residents get their mail at post office boxes and many homes in rural communities are hard to find, she said she has received emails from residents notifying her they haven’t yet received a census packet in the mail and haven’t heard from a census worker.
Adding to the confusion, the Census Bureau only reports county data on households that have self-responded. It does not release county-level information about participants who filled out forms in other ways — such as by mail or phone — meaning there’s no way to know how many of the other 68 percent of Rio Arriba residents have participated in the count.
Gillian Joyce, a Taos County contractor overseeing census operations there, echoed Caltagirone’s concerns. To date, that county’s self-response rate is 36.8 percent — down from 2010’s rate of 41.7 percent.
Her concern, she said, is that census workers rushing to finish the job early “necessarily cut corners in their efforts to reach a complete count and the data is therefore of a lower quality.”
She doesn’t blame them.
“They were put in a position where they didn’t have a choice,” she said. “What do you do if you are a census worker tasked with completing a correct count in a very short time period? Frankly, anyone would do whatever they could to get some data over no data.”
In Curry County, in the southeastern part of the state, Nikki Lovett, community services coordinator, said she did not want to dispute the official census numbers.
But, she said, they don’t make sense to her as she and her crew keep track of the various “census tracks” in her county. In some areas, she has watched the self-reporting numbers grow, but in other areas, including around Cannon Air Force Base, the figures show no signs of rising.
“The numbers have not continued to grow,” she said of communities around Cannon, where self-reporting figures hover around 17 percent. “I know the word is getting out about the deadline, but I don’t know whether those numbers will suddenly jump.”
In Santa Fe County, the self-response rate as of Tuesday was 61.3 percent, Boies said — already more than the 60.7 percent in 2010. Although she is disappointed about the new deadline, she said her workers are going to keep going “full steam ahead” through Thursday.
Meyers Sackett said changes in the census deadline put the state at risk of an inaccurate count, “depriving New Mexicans of the critical federal funding they deserve.”
Even with a 99.9 percent count, she said, “New Mexico would stand to lose over $103 million in federal funding over the next ten years.”
Keegan King, a spokesman for the state’s Indian Affairs Department, said self-reporting figures on tribal lands and pueblos are not encouraging.
While Jemez Pueblo has a self-reporting rate of over 64 percent, the rate for the Navajo Nation in the northwestern portion of the state is just over 22 percent.
The coronavirus pandemic and a lack of broadband and cellphone access have played a role in the low counts, King said, adding the “decision to end the census count early is jeopardizing the entire process for tribal communities hit hard by COVID. It could lead to a severe undercount. … It could cost the tribes and the states hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Census data shows New Mexico ranks fourth for the number of residents — 41.4 percent — who required follow-up efforts because they did not initially respond to census queries or self-report.
The U.S. Census Bureau will continue to take responses online at My2020Census.gov until 11:59 p.m. Hawaiian-Aleutian Standard Time — which is four hours behind the Mountain time zone. This means New Mexicans can fill out online census forms by 3:59 a.m. Friday.
Thursday is also the postmark deadline for paper forms and the last day to respond by phone.